Gloucester Times: Moulton goes to fish school

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As first dates go, this one seemed to hold some promise.

Seth Moulton, the upstart Democrat congressional candidate who defeated incumbent John Tierney in the Democratic primary, traveled to Gloucester on Wednesday night to meet with about 15 fishermen and fishing advocates at the offices of the Northeast Seafood Coalition.

In a wry turn of events so deep into a campaign, Moulton didn't seem to arrive with the overt motive of courting votes. Instead, the first-time candidate seemed to be courting information, seeking the perspective of the fishermen and advocates on the complex science and policy issues involved in the management of the Northeast multi-species groundfish fishery.

Moulton didn't show up with a  five-point plan to save the fishery or a bag full of promises. The only promises he made were to listen to what the fishermen have to say and -- if elected over Republican opponent Richard Tisei -- be a hands-on advocate with a congressional staff that would include one position dedicated to fishing issues.

"I don't walk in a room proclaiming I'm an expert," Moulton told those assembled around the long table in the coalition's conference room. "My background, education-wise from my undergraduate years, is in science. I'll take the time to understand the science so I can be your best advocate. But my purpose here tonight is really to listen."

Later, after the meeting ended, Moulton was asked what he heard.

"I heard an awful lot of concern, a lot of passion in the room and a lot of very legitimate concern about what's gone on in the fishery," Moulton said.

He said he was impressed with the fishermen's "thoughtful analysis" and depth of understanding of the complex issues that define fishery management.

"This isn't (just) a group of people who are upset at what happened," Moulton said. "This is a group of people who really want to be part of a solution and making sure we have a sustainable fishery here."

The meeting, he said, further ingrained in him a belief in the need for extensive regulatory reform and expanded dialogue between regulators and fishermen.

"It surprises me that the regulators don't spend more time learning from the fishermen," he said. "But I'm going to learn from the fishermen." 

The meeting. initiated by the Moulton campaign, held the potential for some awkwardness.

Moulton rankled some local fishermen and advocates during the primary when he used the word "handout" when discussing the federal disaster relief to groundfishermen and raised some eyebrows when he said he would have voted for the aid package only because it was "the only thing on the table."

Then there was the dispatching of Tierney in the primary, which removed one of the groundfishermen's most ardent supporters.

Tierney has carried a lot of water for the fishermen in his 18 years on Capitol Hill, on issues ranging from the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to the ongoing distribution of the approximately $14.5 million Massachusetts received from the $75 million Congress appropriated in January. Tierney played a pivotal role in securing those funds.

The fishermen's respect for Tierney was evident in each reference to his work. But there also seemed to be respect for Moulton's willingness to try to understand the complexities of fishery management and the direct impact the federally declared fishing disaster has had on the Gloucester fleet and community.

There were nods of approval when he mentioned that --again, if elected -- he would make time to go out on the boats to see exactly what the fishermen are encountering on the water.

"When you're a platoon commander in the Marines, you don't go and check on your lines at noon," Moulton said, referring to his four tours as a Marine officer in Iraq. "You check at 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning."

There also seemed to be an appreciation for his quiet manner and intent method of listening that he strayed from only to ask pointed questions or answer a direct question from one of the assembled.

"I liked what I saw tonight," longtime fisherman Joe Orlando said after the roughly 90-minute meeting ended. "I think he did good."

Moulton certainly got an earful about NOAA and the federal system set up for managing the nation's fisheries.

"It's a very broken system," said coalition executive director Jackie Odell. "It's worse than it was before."

During a discussion on the federal regulation wielded by NOAA, Moulton asked what the ratio of Gloucester-based NOAA employees is to the number of groundfishermen still active in the fleet and was told it's about 7-to-1.

He asked for insight into how stock assessments currently are done and how the science might be improved.

Upon hearing first-person accounts of how the fishermen have been victimized by NOAA scientific policies and harsh regulation, Moulton, who holds a bachelors in physics among his three Harvard degrees, interjected: "That not just unfair, but totally unscientific."

The conversation was wide-ranging, detailing fishing life under policies that have resulted in increasing area closures and slashed quotas, and hovering right on the horizon, the specter of emergency measures for Gulf of Maine cod that will eat even further into the fishermen's ability to ply their trade.

"These areas have been closed for the purpose of making fishermen less efficient," Vito Giacalone, the coalition's policy director, told Moulton.

Longtime Gloucester groundfisherman Al Cottone pointedly told Moulton "you are meeting with us at our darkest hour" because of a system he described as intentionally designed to shrink the groundfish fleet.

"What we need now is a champion," Cottone said. "We're in a desperate situation."