East Coast Fisheries Chief Faces Challenges

New England's fishing industry is in the middle of what some fear is a fatal squeeze between fishery science, which shows key species in poor health, and federal law demanding tough cuts to protect the fish.

BOSTON (AP) — John Bullard has purposely walked into trouble before.

In 1986, an hour after being sworn in as mayor of the seaport of New Bedford, he was standing amid police officers, police dogs and a couple hundred angry fishermen, dodging a rock and trying to bring calm during a roiling strike that spawned fires and a bomb threat.

Now, he'll only face rhetorical stones as the new leader of the Northeast office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, starting Aug. 6. But the problems ahead have proven more intractable than the two-month strike he dealt with decades ago.

New England's fishing industry is in the middle of what some fear is a fatal squeeze between fishery science, which shows key species in poor health, and federal law demanding tough cuts to protect the fish.

Fishermen don't trust the science and some believe the regulators Bullard will lead are deliberately driving them off the water.

"The relationship between (regulators) and the industry I don't think has ever been worse, and the relationship between NOAA and Capitol Hill I don't think has ever been worse," Bullard said.

Bullard will lead what NOAA calls its Northeast office, which includes states from Maine to North Carolina. The office handles a variety of issues, from regulating protected species to habitat conservation. But the highest-profile work is developing federal policy to manage species of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and flounder, that have been staples of the New England fishery, and whose condition will determine its future.

Grim as things are, the 65-year-old Bullard thinks he can make a difference, and so do people from various sides of the debate on how the fishery should be managed. His backers for the job included both the Environmental Defense Fund, distrusted by some fishermen, and Rep. Barney Frank, a longtime industry champion.

"He kind of combines, better than anybody I can think of, the understanding of the environmental concerns and support for fishing," Frank said.

Bullard knows the industry well, as a New Bedford native who was mayor for six years, starting in 1986.

He later worked for NOAA's sustainable fisheries office, leading a program to buy out fishing boats in the late 1990s, relieving pressure on fish stocks while giving participating fishermen money to start over.

He more recently served on a state commission that worked on a plan to zone the ocean off Massachusetts for various uses — a plan some fishermen worry will lead to more restrictions.

Bullard succeeds Patricia Kurkul, who retired last year. He said he first started thinking about applying for the job after a call from Dick Allen, a former Rhode Island fisherman who's drawn the ire of other fishermen by working with EDF and pushing individual catch quotas.

Allen said that amid the animosity, Bullard "just came to mind as somebody who could overcome a lot of that and would appeal to all sides and would be able to handle that situation and maybe repair it to a certain degree."

People aren't always happy with what Bullard does. But longtime fishing boat owner Maggie Raymond, head of the Associated Fisheries of Maine, said he's widely trusted as an honest broker.

"He's a politician first, and the kind of guy who likes to talk to people," she said. "I don't know anybody that dislikes him. I think that's because of his communication skills and the way he treats people with respect regardless of what side of the issue they're on."

Bullard said a major problem is a lack of a shared vision for what the fishery's future, which leaves people at cross purposes. He also sees a huge gulf in understanding about fishery science, including its limits and also the unwelcome truth it tells. Communication in the fishery nowadays, he said, is too often through lawsuits.

Getting regulators, fishermen and environmentalists to trust each other may be "a bar that's too high to set," Bullard said. But better understanding is possible, so that even if they don't agree, people can see they're disagreeing in good faith and be amenable to working together, he said.

The Gloucester headquarters where Bullard will be based houses about 200 workers, but Bullard doesn't expect to be there much initially, as he sets off for various meetings to get to know constituents up and down the coast.

Supporters like Rep. Frank are hoping Bullard can also improve communications between the industry and the top levels at NOAA, including chief Jane Lubchenco, whom he said must become far more willing to work with fishermen.

Frank said while fishery law has tough protections for fish, it also has underutilized flexibility to help fishermen stay in businesses.

"I think the law is not so rigid, there's plenty of room if you have somebody who wants to take it," he said.

The challenges are daunting, but Bullard sees reasons to hope. For instance, this year NOAA and the industry worked to find space in the law that helped them avoid, for now, a massive cut to Gulf of Maine cod catch. And while certain stocks are struggling, fishermen for years haven't caught near their limit on some plentiful stocks, such as haddock, because of the law's constraints.

"There's opportunity there, isn't there?" Bullard said.

Bullard's optimism comes before he spends a day on what could prove a thankless job.

"You have to be optimistic, because there isn't an option to optimism," he said. "If you're a pessimist, it's just blown."