Northeast fisheries chief’s credo: ‘Take the heat. … Move on’

By Emily Yehle | 02/26/2015 01:00 PM EST

John Bullard is the face of the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Northeast — and of its hot-button oversight of cod. The former mayor of New Bedford, Mass., says he doesn’t sweat being unpopular if that will help save the region’s historic cod fishery for the long haul. “This is what I signed up for,” he said. “Difficult decisions have to be made. I don’t want them to be faceless, anonymous or impersonal. I want everyone to know there is a real human being with a history they are very familiar with who is responsible.”

John Bullard recalls sitting on a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when "the light bulb went off."

Just out of college, he had set off to sail around the world by hitching free rides wherever he could get them. But a message in community organizer Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book "Rules for Radicals" stopped him short: If you want to change the world, go home.

So he did. Armed with a master’s in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bullard went back to his hometown of New Bedford, Mass. He led the revitalization of its waterfront, the country’s largest commercial fishing port. By 1986, he was mayor.


Today Bullard, 67, is the face of the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Northeast — and its controversial decisions governing cod. But New Bedford is still written all over him, from the Croakies round-the-head glasses strap favored by boaters to his slight but distinct Massachusetts accent.

"If you relish independence, if you want to live by your wits, there’s something magical about the ocean," Bullard said on a recent evening in a hotel lobby, his tall frame folded into an upholstered chair.

Bullard now spends more time in Holiday Inns and Radissons than he does on the water. As an NMFS regional administrator, it’s his job to frequent nondescript conference rooms, listening to fishermen who are wary of federal data and environmentalists who want tighter fishing regulations.

That debate has escalated in recent months, after NMFS released an unexpected midseason stock assessment on Gulf of Maine cod. The assessment — which showed alarmingly low population numbers — triggered emergency action, with NMFS closing off large swaths of the gulf to cod fishing through mid-May (Greenwire, Nov. 10, 2014).

Bullard angered many fishermen by initially declining to consider industry alternatives to the temporary closures, but he reversed course last week. That concession will not stem the debate, though; after the interim rule expires, fishery managers are expected to all but ban cod harvests.

Once heralded as the key to mending NMFS’s strained relationship with Northeast fishermen, Bullard now embodies one of the most unpopular restrictions in years.

"This is what I signed up for. Difficult decisions have to be made," Bullard wrote in an email. "I don’t want them to be faceless, anonymous or impersonal. I want everyone to know there is a real human being with a history they are very familiar with who is responsible."

‘Face to face’

More than 20 years ago, Bullard similarly found himself at the center of a controversy.

It was one of his own making. As mayor of New Bedford, he planned a second wastewater treatment plant to bring the city into compliance with the Clean Water Act. The controversial part: He decided to put it in the South End, a neighborhood filled with people who had voted for him. Bullard lost their support — and his next election.

John Bullard
NMFS Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard. | Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The story has become almost a fable, an anecdote brought up by friends and colleagues to illustrate Bullard’s moral compass. He will listen, they say, but then he’ll make the decision he thinks is right, even if it’s unpopular.

"In this world of politics and policy, he calls them as he sees them, which is rare," said John Quinn, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council who has known Bullard for 25 years. "He’s not afraid to take the heat."

Quinn, a former Massachusetts state representative who once served as a legal representative of the fishing industry, acknowledged that Bullard is now at "one of the more controversial points" in his three years as regional administrator. But he urged critics to look beyond cod; the scallop industry, for example, "has been going like gangbusters."

"I think oftentimes we like to dwell on the negatives and not the positives," Quinn said. "John Bullard didn’t create the cod crisis."

Critics say Bullard has become part of the NMFS machine, following the bureaucratic line even when it doesn’t make sense. Veteran fisherman David Goethel described him as having "the Bill Clinton I-feel-your-pain schmooziness."

"My view of him as a person is he’s a likable enough person, but my view of him as administrator is he’s got some serious problems," said Goethel, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and has countered the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s data. "He tends to basically overgeneralize statements and make statements that are not necessarily supported by the facts."

That’s where the cod debate plays in: Bullard trusts NOAA science, while many Northeastern fishermen do not.

Fishermen say they have no problem catching cod, despite the agency’s assessments showing low stock. To critics, that is evidence that NOAA’s data-collection methods are inadequate, particularly at a time when a warming ocean is sending fish deeper and farther north.

To Bullard, it is an issue of perspective, in which fishermen know where the remaining cod cluster but don’t see the broader historical and geographical picture.

"What they’re asking us to do is develop a plan that saves the fish and saves the boats," Bullard said. "We’ve gotten to a point with so few fish and so few boats, you have to ask: Is there a plan that saves the fish and the boats? Is that a possibility? I don’t have an answer."

But he is unequivocal on NOAA’s priority: "Our job is to protect cod."

In the past, Bullard was able to tackle dwindling fish stocks and remain popular. From 1993 to 1998, he led NOAA’s first Office of Sustainable Development and Intergovernmental Affairs. It was during the Clinton administration, and the agency was able to buy out fishermen, paring down fishing fleets to better match fish stocks.

Today, that paring down often comes through attrition. And Bullard is in charge of an office that has to also contend with planning for climate change, improving electronic monitoring and moving into ecosystem-based management.

In an email, he described his philosophy on making hard decisions: "Get the best science. Listen to people. Rely on your staff. Don’t put off decisionmaking. Explain your reasons face to face. Take the heat yourself. Move on."

A welcome flip-flop

Bullard can feel like an open book. He tells stories, explains the reasons behind his decisions and often speaks bluntly.

He’s also approachable. A recent interview was punctuated with interruptions, as several people attending a nearby conference stopped to say hello and, in one case, tease him about his ubiquity at meetings.

But Bullard knows how to frame a conversation. On the cod debate, he is sure to point out that the cod industry is small, dwarfed by the booming scallop trade and comprising a few hundred boats. He also addresses the criticism of his agency’s scientists head on, asserting that their work isn’t questioned when the news is good: "These guys are not smart on Monday and dumb on Tuesday."

His blend of directness and diplomacy has won him some staunch supporters in a community suspicious of NOAA.

Tony DiLernia, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, said he is "amazed at the lack of tension in the room now compared to, say, 10 years ago."

"John has a way of explaining the issue so that people, while they may not like it, understand it," said DiLernia, a charter boat captain and director of maritime technology at Kingsborough Community College. "That has gone a long way towards defusing the tension that exists between the fishing community in the Mid-Atlantic regions and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."

When Bullard was first announced as regional administrator in 2012, the fishing industry appeared pleased. Maggie Raymond, head of the Associated Fisheries of Maine, told the Associated Press at the time that while Bullard was a politician, "I don’t know anybody that dislikes him."

But Raymond and others expressed surprise to The Gloucester Times when Bullard seemed to reject their alternatives for emergency cod measures last month. At a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council, Bullard indicated that NMFS simply did not have enough time to consider the alternative proposals.

That seemed out of character for someone with a reputation for finding solutions. Many considered the industry proposals better than the emergency actions NMFS implemented in November.

Last week, Bullard reversed course, announcing that NMFS would consider the proposals (Greenwire, Feb. 23).

Sarah Heil, a groundfish policy analyst in Bullard’s office, said the decision to act on the industry’s proposal "shows the kind of leader that John is." She described a boss who is "even-keeled" in the face of controversy and prone to check in with employees on every level.

"Even after we take an action, John continues to listen and actively seeks feedback on our action," said Heil, who has worked for NMFS for about five years. "And that’s a leadership quality you don’t always see — the willingness and the openness to reconsider."

Cementing a legacy

Roger Fleming, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, cautiously applauded Bullard’s decision to reconsider the cod emergency measures. But he expressed frustration that Bullard does not use his charisma to enact much broader change within NOAA.

"He’s an eloquent speaker because he does listen, and he’s from New Bedford. I think he has some credibility with fishermen and inside the agency," Fleming said. "I think he could be very influential, and that’s the type of leadership we need in New England."

But Bullard has disappointed environmentalists in the past. In 2013, the Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against NMFS that challenges a plan to allow cod fishermen to carry over unused catch quota — effectively permitting the fishermen to catch beyond the science-based limits for 2013.

Last year, a federal judge ruled against NMFS (Greenwire, April 8, 2014). Four months later, NMFS released the midseason stock assessment that found cod in dire straits, with the spawning population at 3 to 4 percent of the target for a sustainable population.

The line where Bullard’s power ends and NOAA’s begins is hard to spot. In some cases, his hands are tied; the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act dictates certain steps NOAA must take. Bullard can only deliver the news.

But supporters and critics asserted that Bullard is influential. DiLernia pointed to Bullard’s role in setting three-year average catch limits for recreational anglers, after the sector exceeded annual quotas. That gave anglers more wiggle room for a stock that appears to be growing.

Fleming points to future decisions where Bullard could tip the scales.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council recently delayed a decision to proactively ban fishing in wide swaths of ocean to protect slow-growing deep-sea corals (Greenwire, Feb. 12). Environmentalists see the protection as crucial, since such coral serves as important habitat and could one day be destroyed by fishing gear (Greenwire, Aug. 28, 2014).

But the council is taking more time to make a decision and consider industry alternatives to the plan. Bullard has said he thinks all stakeholders can come to an agreement.

Bullard should "push the council to make the best decision possible" and not allow any watering down of protections, Fleming said. Another issue he wants Bullard to tackle: bringing river herring, a key forage fish, under federal protection.

"He has a real opportunity to cement a legacy as a regional administrator," Fleming said.