Courts Can’t Fix What’s Broken With Groundfish

The John Joseph Moakley Courthouse, which houses the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Photo credit: US GSA

This post refers to an oral argument held in the First Circuit Court of Appeals on September 5, 2012.  To listen to an audio recording of the argument, click here.

On Wednesday, a panel of three Federal Circuit Court judges heard arguments from various parties regarding why the 2010 amendment to the New England Groundfish Management Plan, Amendment 16 as it is known, should either be thrown out or upheld. Among the folks asking the court to throw out the amendment were the cities of New Bedford and Gloucester, whose mayors sat prominently in the room. I was representing Conservation Law Foundation’s interests to the panel and advancing our view that Amendment 16 was both crucial at the time because of the looming catch limit reductions as well as being well within the law.  A decision is expected shortly.

The judges were clearly puzzled during the argument by the same question that has puzzled many of us repeatedly over the course of this two-plus year legal fight: what were the appellants’ motives in bringing this challenge and what did they hope to get from the court even if they were successful?

And why New Bedford and Gloucester? Their Council representatives all voted for the Amendment 16 package even though—like most everyone involved—they strongly objected to parts of Amendment 16. What do those two cities gain by throwing the management system into chaos by their judicial challenges? Gross revenues of most New Bedford-based boats and from all New Bedford groundfish have climbed dramatically under Amendment 16. To a lesser extent, Gloucester is also better off in gross revenues. The Port of Portland certainly has suffered in recent years, but they did not challenge Amendment 16.  The Court clearly wanted to understand the larger context of the challenge.

The cities argued that they were in court to stop consolidation but, wait a minute, haven’t fishing operations based in Gloucester and New Bedford accounted for a lot of the consolidation? Were they there protecting the interests of the small boat coastal fleet?  No one has ever seriously accused New Bedford of being a champion of the regional small boat fleet in the past although it would be welcome now.

And why go to court when it is patently obvious to many of us that some components of the coastal day boat fleet remain at serious risk until near-shore groundfish populations fully recover, which may not happen soon enough, if ever. There are any number of immediate management actions that New Bedford and Gloucester could be championing at the Council to support survival of day boats; their silence on such matters is striking in that forum.

To me, it didn’t seem like the panel members ever got a convincing answer from New Bedford or Gloucester’s lawyer. I suspect there are a variety of motives behind this effort: fishermen who can show that Amendment 16 irreparably hurt their businesses and ways of life, political ideologues advancing some romantic, largely inaccurate notion of the business of fishing , and business interests who are somehow economically advantaged by keeping the groundfishery in chaos. The political motives may be as simple as press ink: a fish fight almost always makes the front pages, even if it is … well, a fish story.

The court is going to do what it does; as one of the judges observed dryly: “statutory construction issues are not without interest….” A judicial setback of Amendment 16 is unlikely but even if that should happen, no one has seriously proposed a better alternative. What really troubles me about all of this activity is the distraction of it all. Some fishermen are really suffering for circumstances they did not bring down on themselves and strategic port assets like the Portland Fish Exchange are hanging on by a thread.

I have been doing this sort of legal work for more than thirty years and I can promise one thing: nothing, let me repeat, nothing that comes from the First Circuit Court of Appeals will make any sort of a difference to those troubles.

The only thing that will make a difference is commitment to a process that abandons slogans and propaganda and focuses on solutions. There is a lot of talent and interest throughout the region in solving some of these problems and there is no question that the region is at some sort of tipping point.

With New Bedford and Gloucester on board, it now seems that there is broad consensus that the small scale, mostly coastal boat fleet may be at a structural disadvantage that needs to be corrected and that time is of the essence. Rather than fund lawyers, why couldn’t New Bedford and Gloucester lead some problem-solving workshops that would tackle these questions for which they profess so much passion.  We don’t even have to wait for the Council to guide the process.


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