Federal Delegation ‘Solidly Behind’ New Bedford in Fishing Fight
NEW BEDFORD - Prior to a town hall-style meeting in New Bedford on Saturday, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren quietly gathered with fellow senator Ed Markey and Congressman William Keating in the Wharfinger Building on Pier 3. Inside, the three legislators sat for more than an hour, listening to representatives of the fishing community relay their present and future concerns facing the industry.
About 80 fishermen out of New Bedford have been unable to fish or lease their quotas since NOAA shut down Sector IX in November. The shutdown remains in effect until the feds can estimate how much quota convicted "Codfather" Carlos Rafael depleted in his overfishing scheme.
Massachusetts' two senators have been all but crucified for what many see as inaction on the Sector IX closure. Following Saturday's meeting, Senator Warren told WBSM News what appears to some as inaction is, in fact, a more tactful approach in discussions with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"There are a lot of steps to go through to get Sector IX back up," said Warren. "And NOAA seems committed to move forward on those. Senator Markey and I are pushing. We don't want to turn this into politics. We want to facilitate this. We want to make it move forward."
"But we have made it very clear that both of us and Congressman Keating are deeply committed to getting a fast process so that the innocent people that have been harmed by what's happened here can get back out on the water and fish," she said.
In an effort to maintain any profitability, many of the boats belonging to Sector IX transferred to Sector VII in March so that they could lease their quota to vessels that were not impacted by the NOAA ruling. Before the start of the 2018 fishing season on May 1, NOAA withheld quota from Sectors IX and VII, stating that the process for creating new regulations is still ongoing. The regulations are to take into account how much fish Carlos Rafael illegally caught, and how the stocks will be replenished. NOAA is expected to release more information on the regulations in the coming weeks.
During the meeting, the federal delegation discussed NOAA's proposed timeline for reopening the sectors to groundfishing. New Bedford Port Director Edward Anthes-Washburn says the information gave those in the room a more positive outlook on the near future.
"The consensus from the Sector IX folks is that if NOAA holds true to that timeline, which sounds like August/September to be able to lease and harvest fish, I think everybody's pretty happy with that," said Anthes-Washburn.
Fishermen also discussed their strong reservations about the incoming offshore wind industry, and what legal and physical obstructions they may face when turbines are installed in important fishing grounds south of Martha's Vineyard. Three companies, Bay State Wind, Vineyard Wind, and Deepwater Wind, are vying for a state contract to sell wind-generated electricity to Massachusetts power companies. The state is scheduled to award the bid later this month.
Ever since the concept of offshore wind was introduced to Massachusetts, fishermen have outlined legitimate concerns over what interferences may arise between the two industries.
"Not everything is full speed ahead with wind," said Eric Hansen, who owns a scallop boat in New Bedford. "There are concerns with fishermen all the way up and down the coast, not just the Massachusetts wind energy area."
Navigation between the turbines could be hazardous, say some fishermen, as would dragging nets along the ocean floor where high-voltage transit lines from the mainland to the turbines would be situated.
Last month, a group of fishing industry representatives penned a letter to Governor Charlie Baker requesting that the New Bedford Port Authority serve as the "central facilitator" for discussions between fishermen and wind energy officials. Fishermen say that their concerns have not been properly addressed by either of the three companies looking to construct turbines in key fishing grounds. Governor Baker has not issued a clear "yes" or "no" to the request.
Fishermen present for Saturday's meeting made clear to the senators and congressman their request for a mediator. Senator Warren said that request, among other concerns, were heard loud and clear.
"We're there. We're going to be strong. This is just one meeting that helps make sure that we're fully informed and got all the ammunition we need when we go into these fights."
"The federal delegation is solidly behind New Bedford and solidly behind the fishermen, the innocent people who want to get back to fishing, and also to those who are trying to build a new industry right off the shores here in New Bedford," said Warren.