Penny wise and politically foolish
Two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies determined that federal dollars would be better spent by closing down the Northeast Regional Office (NERO) of NOAA Fisheries (NMFS) in Gloucester, Massachusetts and moving almost all operations to the NMFS headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. This move was proposed as a cost-saving measure, but we believe it is a short-sighted proposal that will create more agency inefficiency, lower the quality of service to the largest segment of NMFS’ citizen clients on the east coast and put additional strain on the already frayed relationship between New England fishing communities and government regulators.
The name “Northeast Regional Office” does not fully capture the vast responsibilities of this outpost of NOAA Fisheries. The office manages NOAA’s fisheries programs in not just the states commonly thought of as “northeastern” but rather in the coastal states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina and the western states of Vermont, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. In this region, the office is responsible for overseeing and facilitating the creation and implementation of fishery management plans and habitat and protected species conservation, for fishery data collection and analysis, and for a variety of other administrative and scientific functions. NERO employs 200 people in Gloucester and provides vital tax revenue and substantial economic benefits to the city of Gloucester.
Despite the cover of fiscal responsibility used in the Committee’s bill report, there are clearly some deeper issues. NOAA and the appropriations subcommittee chair, Maryland’s senior senator Barbara Mikulski, seem to suffer from the need for a relationship improvement seminar. However one may put it, the two are not getting along and NOAA is at the receiving end of the fallout from this suffering relationship. The longstanding dysfunction between political parties in Washington DC has been enough to cause gridlock. The people who suffer are the citizens, industries, coastal residents and taxpayers who rely on services from agencies like NOAA who do important work. Nobody benefits from this increased political gamesmanship, least of all the people of New England who are truly stuck in the middle on this one.
It’s no secret that many New England fishermen are unhappy with NOAA regulators and various aspects of federal fishery management. This is a longstanding problem that won’t be cured by simply keeping NERO in the region, but moving the NERO office away from the docks of Gloucester and closer to Washington, D.C. can only increase the distrust and breakdown in communication between our coastal communities and those who create rules that govern their livelihood and cultural heritage – not to mention the job uncertainty the move would create for the 200 NERO employees.
We believe it would be a mistake on the part of the Senate Appropriations Committee to move NERO operations. Some members of the New England Congressional delegation have made statements opposing the relocation, but all government representatives concerned about the vitality of the New England fishing industry and the relationship between fishermen and regulators must take a stronger stand on this issue. Fishermen too, regardless of any concerns on other issues, should recognize the importance of keeping NMFS operations in New England and act to keep the office in Gloucester.