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Thursday, September 30, 2004 - Page updated at 07:43 P.M.
Fight over fishing tested Kerry's "green" credentials
Surveys of the region's famed cod showed that populations had collapsed to new lows, so much so that federal biologists were calling for sweeping new fishing restrictions.
Fearing for their very livelihoods, angry fishermen questioned the science and so, too, did John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts.
Fishery science, Kerry wrote in a letter co-signed by two other senators, is not "absolutely precise" and "uncertainties remain." It would be better, the letter continued, to hold off on drastic action until more studies could be completed.
Kerry's efforts to second-guess the biologists might seem out of step for a Democratic candidate who has repeatedly criticized President Bush for discounting unwelcome science at the expense of the environment.
Kerry's efforts to clean up the air and water, keep oil rigs out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protect the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest earned him a 92 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of the environmental movement.
In the decade-long struggle to help restore the New England fish stocks, Kerry faced one of the toughest conservation challenges of his career, walking a tightrope between saving fish, whose plight was championed by environmentalists, and saving fishermen, whose fiery independence and passion for the water help define New England.
In the process, Kerry helped craft landmark legislation in 1996 to rebuild the fisheries. But later, on occasion, he urged a New England fishery council charged with drafting harvest policy to postpone tough harvest restrictions, according to a review of meeting minutes and correspondence obtained by The Seattle Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Scientists said the harvest restrictions were necessary to rebuild the fisheries as required by the 1996 law.
"They say, 'Don't do anything until we get better science, hoping we'll get a different answer ... .' What this letter is calling for is the exact antithesis of precaution," Rosenberg said in a recent interview.
Environmentalists eventually sued, leading to a court order that required major changes to the harvest plan.
Kerry, in a written response to The Seattle Times, said he never took any action that prevented conservation measures required by the 1996 law. But in many cases, Kerry said, there was a "strong disconnect" between what fishermen said they found in the ocean and the bleaker assessments of scientists. So it was appropriate, Kerry said, to ask for more science reviews.
"I have worked diligently to ensure that fisheries regulation is both science-based and fair," Kerry wrote.
An early activist
Back home, he helped organize Massachusetts' first Earth Day, where he gave one of his earliest public speeches.
During his 20 years in the Senate, Kerry has kept a focus on the environment. He worked on bills to curb acid rain, strengthen protections for marine mammals, set higher gas-mileage standards, develop alternative energy sources, and strengthen federal clean-water and clean-air laws.
"He cares about a lot of things that don't have a lot of visibility," said Denis Hayes, president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, who has known Kerry for 30 years.
But in Kerry's home state, fishing was on lots of people's radar ocean harvests here are a tradition that dates to the Colonial Era, when schooners brought back cod that traded on world markets.
The fight between fishermen and regulation would be an issue that Kerry confronted time and again.
In the early 1990s, as Kerry emerged as the ranking Democrat on a Senate Commerce subcommittee charged with shaping fishery regulations, New England cod, haddock and other groundfish stocks were in terrible shape. They had been beaten down by midcentury trawling by foreign fleets. Then, after a 1976 law drove out the foreign fleets, the pummeling continued by an expanding U.S. fleet working out of New England's ports.
"It was an unbelievable level of overfishing," said Bill Amaru, a concert clarinetist who back in 1974 made a career switch to fishing. He now works off Cape Cod in a small trawl boat that drags a net along the bottom.
By the mid-90s, Amaru was concerned enough about overfishing to join the New England regional council that helps set harvest rules in the 200-mile zone off New England's coasts.
The council was long dominated by industry representatives, who refused to set firm annual-harvest limits even as scientists warned of plummeting groundfish stocks. The catches consistently overshot the safe harvest levels, prompting Amaru and other reformers to advocate a toughening of the federal laws that guide council actions.
The Senate subcommittee held a series of hearings, including one in July 1994 in New Bedford that drew droves of irate fishermen. Kerry listened and lectured: "There are too many boats chasing too few fish ... Now, we have a choice and the choice is very simple. We either restrain ourselves and manage ourselves ... or we claim responsibility for having permitted the destruction of the oceanic ecosystem."
Many fishermen reacted warily. They found Kerry more aloof, and more skeptical, than the genial senior senator, Ted Kennedy, who was always ready to leap to the fleet's defense.
It was Kerry not Kennedy who worked on the years-long process of forging new harvest policy. That effort involved innumerable strategy sessions, with aides making late-night visits to Kerry's Senate office to discuss the latest flash point in negotiations that included environmentalists, fishermen and scientists.
"He had us looking at every possible model [for reform], anything that might make sense," said Penny Dalton, who served as the senator's fishery aide in 1996.
The result was nationwide legislation keyed to conservation that affected the Atlantic fisheries as well as Pacific and Alaska harvests, which support the Seattle-based fleets.
It required that federal scientists annually determine which stocks were overfished, and estimate the size of their original populations. Then regional councils have to come up with conservation plans to rebuild the stocks.
The law, co-authored by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, passed the Senate in September 1996 without a single dissenting vote and was hailed by fishermen, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups as a historic step forward.
It seemed like the launch of a bright new era in fishery management, marked by an unusual degree of harmony. It did not last long.
Soon after Congress voted, New England fishery scientists documented more troubling trends. A December 1996 report found that cod stocks had fallen to all-time lows as fishermen had been allowed to haul out as much as 80 percent of the Georges Banks stock in a single year.
To rebuild the stocks in the time frames set out under the act, the panel recommended the New England groundfish fleet's annual days at sea be sharply cut.
New England fishermen said their days at sea had already been slashed, and called the new proposals a recipe for economic disaster.
Members of the New England congressional delegation including Kerry soon responded to the fishermen's concerns.
In a Dec. 10, 1996, letter to the regional fishery council, Kerry and Maine Sens. William Cohen and Olympia Snowe urged the council to move cautiously, with a "measured and meticulous" approach that avoided "irreversible economic impacts."
The 1996 act had authorized a National Academy of Sciences review of New England groundfish stocks, and the senators suggested that review might reach a different conclusion.
But the review, released in 1998, confirmed the earlier findings. And cod stocks did not rebound. By August 1998, federal scientists were urging "emergency action." Fishermen again rebelled at the science. They said they already had been subject to big cutbacks and there already appeared to be a lot more cod out in the ocean. Politicians once again rallied to their side. At an August 1998, council meeting, Massachusetts state Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Republican, declared that the true emergency was "a lack of good science to guide decisions."
Tarr's testimony was followed by that of Nick Perugini, who then worked on harvest issues at Kerry's office, according to a council transcript of the meeting. Kerry, too, was concerned about the disconnect between the scientists' fish count and "what the fishermen were finding," Perugini testified. "So we would like to essentially second Senator Tarr's statements concerning the need for better science."
By the day's end, the council had voted to reject a science panel's emergency proposal to protect cod.
Greenpeace, The Conservation Law Foundation and other environmental groups were convinced that council actions, over the years, violated the 1996 law. They filed a lawsuit in federal court. And in 2002, they won, with a judge crafting a new plan.
The plan outraged fishermen. And even some environmentalists say they think it was a clumsy effort that hit especially hard at small-boat fishing fleets.
Kerry also was troubled. He began to speak of a new crisis not of overfishing but of harvest rules crafted by court edicts.
"Now, the fishery is in disarray, there are protests in our ports," Kerry wrote in testimony submitted to a May 9, 2002, Senate oversight hearing. "And we are left asking how can we help communities get through this season, how do we restore confidence in the fishery-management process, and how will we prevent that from happening again."
Kerry and his staff then worked with fishermen to come up with a new plan to meet the federal judge's approval. It finally took effect earlier this year amid signs that fisheries are on the rebound. Currently, five groundfish species are being harvested at what the 1996 act defines as sustainable rates.
But eight other species including cod are still being caught at rates above the act's sustainable standards, according to federal scientists. And earlier this year, environmentalists filed yet another suit over the council's timetable for rebuilding cod stocks.
"We wrestled long and hard over whether to take this to court but in the end we could not live with this," said Peter Shelley, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation.
As for Kerry, he is hopeful that new surveys that put scientists and fishermen out on the water together to count fish might lead to an era of more peaceful cooperation.
"It is only through efforts like these that we can ultimately get away from the finger-pointing," Kerry said in a statement to The Seattle Times.
But Amaru, who has joined in some of those co-surveys, frets at a future filled with even more restrictions.
To make the most of the shortened summer season, Amaru, 54, fishes straight through the night. On one long day, well past midnight, the fishing is decent, and the seas calm. But an exhausted Amaru is having his doubts.
"I think I'm just about ready to get out of this thing this is too much," he said. "It's no fun anymore."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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