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The Ocean’s Crossroads: Is Stellwagen Report ‘Advocacy Masquerading As Science’?

June 25, 2008

By Richard Gaines, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

Jun. 25–Last of 3 parts

A charter officer of the nonprofit corporation created to support a more aggressive approach to federal management of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has resigned in the face of what she describes as a bias against commercial fishing.

“I felt like the group had an attitude that was anti-fishing,” Dale Brown told the Times yesterday

Brown said she resigned a month ago from Stellwagen Alive: Friends of Our National Marine Sanctuary Inc. As its first treasurer and resident agent, Brown, a former community development director for the city of Gloucester, organized the 501(c)3 corporation last July.

The resignation has come while the sanctuary, a small federal management agency itself, is taking public comment on a draft management plan with harsh judgments about the harm fishing has done to Stellwagen — and complaints by commercial fishermen up and down the coast that the management plan’s ulterior motive, shared with politically aggressive conservation groups, is to put the sanctuary off limits to fishermen.

Brown declined to discuss in detail the events that preceded her resignation. But she explained she became disillusioned over a pervasive attitude that commercial fishermen were the enemy of the sanctuary.

Brown said she agreed to join because she believed Stellwagen Alive would be more “friends” and less “advocacy.”

“I constantly found that I had to defend the fishermen,” said Brown.

Setting an agenda

Brown said that, as an ex officio member, Craig MacDonald was present for many of the meetings. MacDonald, as superintendent, is charged with the managing the 842-square-mile federal sanctuary that’s rich with fish, whales and wrecks — and favored by commercial and recreational fishermen, divers and whale-watchers.

MacDonald denied the private group had an anti-fishing bias. That charge “is patently untrue,” he said. Jennifer Bender Ferre, the new executive director of Stellwagen Alive, concurred.

“We are not anti-fishing in any way,” Ferre said.

The only organized so far by Stellwagen Alive was a well-publicized marathon kayaking trip last fall from Provincetown to Gloucester by Richard Wheeler, a founding officer of the corporation and a 1998 Time magazine Hero of the Planet, to raise awareness of the need to save Stellwagen Bank from unstated perils.

MacDonald has been promoting the draft action plan for a more aggressive approach to managing the sanctuary in a series of meetings across the region’s seacoast states this month.

At the meetings, MacDonald noted with pride the presence of the private corporation to raise money and awareness of the need for a sanctuary agenda. That agenda does not now call for additional fishing regulations by his agency on top of those issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA regulates fishing throughout the region, including inside the sanctuary.

But MacDonald noted, “We’re laying the foundation for future next steps.”

He has also found himself deflecting perceptions by commercial fishermen of a bias against them in the ideas and rhetoric of the 360-page plan and its accompanying 36-page brochure.

The first seven of 11 “key findings” focus on the harmful impact of commercial fishing on the sanctuary.

“On an annual basis,” the first finding reads, “virtually every square kilometer of the sanctuary is physically disturbed by fishing, and fishing has removed almost all of the big old-growth individuals among biologically important fish populations.”

Fishermen react

Expressions of frustration poured out of commercial fishermen during MacDonald’s presentation in Portsmouth, N.H., on June 16. John Makowsky of Hampton, N.H., said the Stellwagen draft management report created “a real stigma to being a commercial fisherman.”

Erik Anderson, president of the New Hampshire Commercial Fishermen’s Association, was the first of many fishermen to complain that NOAA and now MacDonald’s agency have been disingenuous, playing fishermen for fools while pursuing an agenda aimed at eliminating the culture of the small businessman-boat owner.

Part of the suspicion traces to the sense that NOAA and MacDonald’s Stellwagen Sanctuary are allied with, or under the influence of, conservation groups that demonize and marginalize fishermen and enjoy fundraising success in reaction to the ardent fight against exploitation of the fishery.

In his three minutes in Portsmouth, Anderson reminded MacDonald and the audience that Stellwagen was made a sanctuary in 1993 for fishing by excluding destructive mining, drilling and dumping.

“Now the sanctuary will become the fishing manager at some future time, and we’ll be having another body (along with NOAA) to come in and manage fishing,” he said.

Rhetoric vs. science

Dave Goethel, a commercial fisherman from Hampton, N.H., has moved his boat to Gloucester to reduce the time and cost of reaching Stellwagen, which is open to fishing but with the days-at-sea clock working double time. At Portsmouth, he complained about a rhetorical flourish in the draft management report that to him seemed like “advocacy masquerading as science.”

The section analyzes “habitat disturbance due to fishing.” In the sentence that reads “the disturbance of the seabed by bottom mobile fishing gear (otter trawls and dredges) is sometimes viewed as synonymous with forest clear-cutting,” Goethel said he saw “a subtle bias against the user groups.”

MacDonald disagreed. In interviews with the Times, he said he was simply not seeing a slant to a peer-reviewed, footnoted scientific report.

Other fishing foes

The analogy of bottom trawling with clear-cutting, however, was made by two prominent, controversial and high profile activist-scientists, Les Watling and Elliott Norse. Both have received large grant funding from the Pew Institute, and have conducted high visibility experiments and research activities designed to dramatize the destructive impact on the environment of the traditional methods of commercial fishing. Pew is associated with public information campaigns against fishing and fish consumption.

“Bottom trawling is the most destructive of any actions that humans conduct on the ocean,” Norse said at the February meeting in Boston of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A campaign a decade ago to end swordfishing made them personae non grata along the wharves.

Norse and Watling’s celebrity and their influence on MacDonald and the sanctuary-managing agency suggest the mismatch perceived by commercial fishermen in their effort to protect fishing rights inside the sanctuary.

The fiercest opponent of fishing in Stellwagen is the Conservation Law Foundation, which worked with the commercial fishermen to convince Congress to create the sanctuary in 1992.

In Portsmouth, the foundation’s Kristine Kraushaar fixed on the “grim picture of bottom trawling,” which she described as a “travesty,” to urge a crackdown.

Links from the Web site of Stellwagen Alive — to the Ocean Conservatory and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society — suggest the network of politically aggressive, donor-based conservation organizations that compete with the Conservation Law Foundation for donors but share its impatience for tougher environmental controls on Stellwagen and elsewhere.

For fisherman Dave Goethel, how the federal government first established Stellwagen to protect fishing rights of fishermen and now seems to be preparing the case for abridging, if not erasing those rights, recalls government behavior toward another cultural minority — the Indians — in the 19th century.

The political clout of the conservationist friends of Stellwagen gives Goethel little reason for optimism.

“Every time they come up with a new Remington,” he said, “another bunch of us gets shot.

“We negotiate in good faith,” Goethel said. “They find a way around anything we negotiate.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com

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