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Fishermen to rally in D.C. as industry struggles

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BOSTON >> Fishermen from California to New England plan to rally for their struggling industry in Washington next week with an election year message for Congress: helping the fishing industry will save jobs.

Organizers expect a roster of lawmakers to speak before about 5,000 commercial and recreational fishermen in a park next to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

The crowd is expected to include fishermen from all the Atlantic coast states plus Alaska and California.

They represent diverse interests who chase a mix of species and haven’t always agreed. But Jim Donofrio, head of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a rally organizer, says they share concerns that federal regulators are using flawed science to make cutbacks that are killing fishing jobs around the country.

In an election year when jobs are a dominant issue, Donofrio said he hopes the rally’s calls reach new corners on Capitol Hill and prompt action on legislation fishermen believe can help.

“This election is being defined by jobs right now, and this is a jobs issue,” Donofrio said.

Sam Rauch, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries arm, agreed fishing jobs are a key concern. But he said the recent numbers on fishing jobs show progress. According to the most recent statistics, the number of fishing-related jobs in the U.S. went from 1 million to 1.2 million between 2009 and 2010.

But Rauch said he knows the growth hasn’t been felt everywhere. In New England, for instance, fishermen are facing a possible fishery collapse in 2013 because of the too-slow recovery of cod in the Gulf of Maine.

Rauch added he welcomes whatever views are shared at the rally.  

“It’s good to have a constituency that cares so much about the future of fishing in this country,” he said.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance helped host a similar event in Washington two years ago, which Donofrio said increased the visibility of key legislation that can really help fishermen. This time, he said, he hopes lawmakers can be spurred to finally act on it.

He pointed to a bill by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., that’s introduced regularly but never goes anywhere. The bill would ease fish catch cutbacks by giving fishermen more time to rebuild struggling species.

Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said it also contains underappreciated reforms, such as allowing the U.S. Commerce secretary to suspend tough catch limits on various species, if the science doesn’t justify those limits.

Fishermen repeatedly complain that wildly shifting estimates of the health of fish populations invariably lead to huge cuts and lost jobs. The say Gulf of Maine cod, thought to be robust just four years ago, is just the latest example.

“The arrogance becomes astounding,” said Tina Jackson, president of the American Alliance of Fishermen and their Communities.

“If this rally says anything, it’s to tell NOAA we’re not asking you to be accountable anymore … we’re demanding it,” said Jackson, who’s organizing a busload of fishermen from New England to travel to Washington.

Donofrio said Massachusetts U.S. Sens. John Kerry, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Republican, and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, are among a list of politicians expected to speak, and Speaker of the House John Boehner has been invited.

Bob Jones, of the Florida-based Southeastern Fisheries Association, which is sending about 100 people to the rally, said resistance from groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund always makes it tough to move stalled fisheries legislation. But he thinks the rally can help.   

“If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t stay in this business,” he said.

Johanna Thomas, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said better fisheries science is needed but huge changes in the law aren’t.

“We sympathize with the challenges that fishermen face,” she said. “Moving forward let’s focus on improving the system and transitioning to better management rather than gutting existing laws.”

Rauch agreed better science is needed, and he said the agency has responded by increasing spending on it, even amid budget cuts, so that is becomes increasingly solid and consistent. He added that the science, and the rules that result, are always fully hashed out in public view.

“I understand the fishermen’s, at times, frustation with the proceess,” he said. “We do have the most open and transparent process in the world.”

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