Scott Lang has been around fisheries issues for a long time.
Both when he was mayor and afterwards.
In 2013, Lang helped organize the Center for Sustainable Fisheries as a grassroots lobbying group to try to make sure New Bedford fishermen were not totally forgotten by NOAA. He’s worked for the industry for a long time and seen a lot of arguments from both sides back-and-forth over the years.
But until last week, he said he had never seen NOAA make a decision to close a fishery with no science behind it. Not even questionable science, as for years NOAA has used for New England groundfishing limits in the opinion of many.
NOAA’s decision to close the Rose and Crown Zone and Zone D to surf clammers is based on anecdotal evidence related to UMass Dartmouth scientist Kevin Stokesbury’s research for the scallop industry, first done almost two decades ago.
The camera net device Stokesbury invented was for measuring scallop habitats but NOAA has used his science to measure clam beds. It’s not the same, Stokesbury told The Standard-Times. The images his survey produces are of the ocean floor about a kilometer apart and clammers often dredge in much shorter distances.
The clammers have offered to do surveys that will be more applicable to clam beds in the areas of Nantucket Shoals in question. They would need about three years to do that but they would have to keep fishing in the closed areas in order to pay for it.
The federals, perhaps not trusting a clam fishery that some say is secretive, want to do the research themselves but they don’t have a boat of the appropriate size and capability.
There’s disagreement between the clammers and the environmentalists over how destructive to the habitat is a water jet method the clammers use to bring the quahogs to the surface. But even environmentalists concede that New England surf clamming is a sustainable industry. So this is really a battle in which one side just does not want to compromise. And that side, I’m sad to say is the environmentalists. I’m sad to say it because I believe in a lot of the environmentalists’ goals and I think a lot of fishermen do too.
Who knows how it will all turn out, but the areas of the Shoals where 80 percent of the surf clams are harvested, will now be closed for the foreseeable future.
And that’s a big problem for a lot of working people.
New Bedford’s ocean clam industry has grown in recent years. Current New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell estimates as many as 500 city families could be affected by the closure.
Folks who follow the New Bedford fishery will know that NOAA had the same types of ideas about scallops being endangered 20-plus years ago until Stokesbury’s camera/net device proved them wrong. Unfortunately, first come the closures and only second come the science. If it ever comes with NOAA.
More and more, the actual science seems to indicate that global warming is playing a larger role than the fishing effort in the environmental pressures on ocean life. But the reflexive, automatic ocean shutdowns recommended by some environmental groups continue to hold sway with NOAA for some reason.
It’s funny. Local Republicans for a long time have maintained that they better understand the pressures on the fishing industry than do the Democrats who hold political power in New England. But you couldn’t tell that from Donald Trump’s Department of Commerce. It seems exactly the same as Barack Obama’s Department of Commerce. (Commerce is the branch of the federal government that oversees NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is a lifetime conservative investor who somehow has been able to rationalize Donald Trump’s policies on high tariffs. But he hasn’t had a thing to say about NOAA’s incredibly restrictive regulations on fishermen.
Does he even know that NOAA is part of Commerce?
Our Republican governor, Charlie Baker once tearfully told a story about a New Bedford fisherman who convinced his athletic sons to go fishing instead of accept football scholarships. No one ever found that fisherman in New Bedford but Baker nevertheless pledged to do all he can to help protect the city’s fishery.
Perhaps it’s time for him to pick up the phone and call Wilbur Ross. They could talk about the free market and NOAA.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times and SouthCoastToday.