Sorry Charlie: The Real Problem with Baker’s Fish Story

Image credit: New York Times.

During their last debate, the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates grew emotional over the plight of New England’s fishermen, with Republican Charlie Baker weeping as he recounted a talk he had with an out-of-work fisherman.

But some details of Baker’s story didn’t seem to add up, and Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and campaign reporters pounced on the possibility that Baker had fabricated the fish story, another example of an apocryphal tale from a pol. Baker insists that he might have “gotten some of the details wrong, but the essence of the story is true.”

It’s hard to see how Baker’s spotty recall of an encounter with a fisherman matters much. What matters about this fish story is that both major party candidates for governor have their facts wrong about the disastrous state of cod fishing in New England and neither seems willing to even confront reality, much less offer helpful solutions.

According to the Boston Globe, Baker says “federal regulations” and catch limits are unnecessarily hurting the state’s fishermen and that what’s needed is a state-led assessment of fish populations:

“In terms of going after the fundamental question of what’s going on out there in the water, I feel we have not done a good job at all as a commonwealth. I’ll tell you something, as governor, I’ll be all over that one.”

With statements like this, Baker is dismissing the overwhelming science about the alarming decline in cod stocks, which have hit historic lows. An updated, scientific assessment of cod in the Gulf of Maine shows the population at just 3 percent of a healthy level.

But Baker’s not the only one denying the science here. As attorney general, Martha Coakley ignored the advice of the Commonwealth’s own fishery agency and sued to throw out science-based limits on fishing intended to help the depleted cod populations recover. Her groundless case was summarily dismissed.

It is, indeed, tragic that chronic overfishing has driven New England’s iconic and once-plentiful cod populations to commercial extinction. But our fish and fishermen would be better off if political leaders brought more reason and less emotion to the issue.

The sort of political posturing Baker and Coakley are engaging in encourages the region’s fishery managers to put short-term profits ahead of securing a stable economic future. That’s the reason we have so many sad stories from fishermen who are now facing the consequences of the loss of the cod fishery. Whether Baker’s story is largely true or not, everyone feels the pain many fishermen are experiencing. Solutions, on the other hand, require more than a tear-stained eye. They require clear-eyed leadership. In political circles, that seems to be as difficult to find as Mr. Baker’s mysterious fisherman.


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