FISHERIES:

Obama admin shows willingness to relax conservation regs

The Obama administration will consider easing fisheries regulations in a bid to help Northeastern fishermen facing reductions in their catch, the head of the Commerce Department said yesterday.

In letters to New England lawmakers yesterday, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke indicated he would be willing to make concessions to help the embattled fishermen. The changes could include special exemptions to the 2006 fisheries conservation act intended to end overfishing and restore depleted stocks.

The development is a reversal of Locke's previous stance on changes to the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act -- the 2006 law that sets strict requirements to end overfishing and base catch limits on recommendations from scientific advisory boards.

Locke had originally expressed uncertainty about whether the law gave him authority to raise catch limits set on various species. But Locke yesterday said in a letter to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that he is now convinced he has the authority.

"I am prepared to issue an emergency regulation to revise catch limits whenever there is both sufficient economic and sound scientific data available to meet these requirements," Locke wrote.

The initial decision does not mean Locke will necessarily roll back fishing limits: He wants more information on the economic hardship and science behind fish stocks in New England before making a final decision. Frank and other Massachusetts lawmakers promised to send him that information, and Locke vowed to work on the issue with lawmakers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco.

New England lawmakers who had been critical of the administration's previous stance praised Locke's letter yesterday.

"Today's announcement from Secretary Locke opens the door to relief for our fishing communities," said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D). "Catch limits set unnecessarily low are making the transition to catch shares extraordinarily difficult and putting the viability of many members of our fishing fleet at risk."

Patrick said he has instructed his administration to help pull together data to make the case to roll back the fishing limits. And Frank said he would work with colleagues in Congress to "do all that I can to improve the economic situation for the fishing industry."

NOAA and its efforts to end overfishing have come under fire in the Northeast, where fishermen and lawmakers say the strict catch reductions are threatening fishing communities.

Fishermen argue that the limits on some species are set too low and could devastate their industry. Under the rules, if fishermen exceed their limits for some species, they must stop fishing other species in the same group -- an attempt to protect overfished stocks from being pulled up as bycatch.

In addition to the catch limits, the area is facing a whole new management scheme, which is the subject of a lawsuit from two of Massachusetts' largest fishing ports and five commercial fishing groups. The groups sued in a bid to stop federal fisheries managers from moving commercial groundfish fisheries to a "catch share" system, which allots vessels a portion of the total catch rather than the race for fish in a traditional management scheme.

Other concessions

Locke also made several other concessions to the industry. He agreed that there is a need to sharpen fish stock estimates and include more fishermen in collecting data. To that end, Locke said, the administration will also seek to immediately invest an extra $15 million in stock assessments and cooperative research projects nationwide.

Locke said he would send lawmakers a "transfer request" to move the money from unused Census accounts to fisheries.

Additionally, Locke endorsed legislation from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that would create another exemption to the Magnuson fisheries act for groundfish stocks managed between the United States and Canada.

The act mandates federal fisheries managers rebuild depleted stocks within 10 years. Snowe's bill, S. 2856, would allow federal fisheries managers to extend those deadlines for the groundfish and scallop industries that are a part of the U.S.-Canada deal. The Senate Commerce Committee cleared the bill last year.

The Magnuson Act allows fisheries managed under international agreements to have more flexibility in rebuilding timelines, but the State Department does not acknowledge the transboundary understanding as an official international agreement, so it does not benefit from that exemption.