BOSTON — Fishermen from around the country are planning to pack the steps in front of the U.S. Capitol this month to demand changes to a federal fisheries law they say is killing jobs and eroding fishing communities.
Organizers of the "United We Fish" rally expect up to 3,000 people at the Feb. 24 protest, including a bipartisan roster of congressmen and fishermen from as far away as Alaska.
The rally comes as various issues roil the fishing business, including questions about uneven law enforcement, restrictions on key recreational stocks and a switch to a new system of regulating Northeast fishermen.
But Jim Hutchinson Jr. of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a rally organizer, said the overall goal is changing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal fisheries law that was reauthorized in 2007.
Hutchinson said the law sets unrealistic fish stock recovery goals based on flawed science, then mandates harsh cuts for failing to meet the goals.
"This is about real people having real concerns and being put out of business, being kicked off the water," Hutchinson said.
Tina Jackson, a Point Judith, R.I., fisherman who is organizing a bus ride to the rally, thinks policymakers will be forced to pay attention when they see solidarity from a field traditionally filled with factions.
"The competition has always run so high," Jackson said. "Now it's come down to 'You know what, it's do or die, we're all in this together, regardless of what kind of fishing you do.'"
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Monica Allen said the agency "will be listening carefully to what fishermen and others have to say that day."
She added that the U.S. has world-leading fishery science and management, and fishermen will see the benefits.
"We estimate that once the nation rebuilds all fisheries, which we are on a track to do and required to do by law, the dockside value of our fisheries would go from $4.1 billion to $6.3 billion annually, a 54-percent increase," she said.
Hutchinson said his New Jersey-based group started organizing the rally after a closure of the amberjack fishery last year followed other closures it viewed as based on bad science, such as on a healthy black sea bass stock.
Their protests echoed complaints commercial fishermen have made for years, and the two sides — longtime rivals for a common resource — found rare common cause.
"The recreational folks are coming a little bit late to the party, but thank God they're with us, and we're with them in lockstep on this issue," said Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a commercial group.
A primary push at the rally will be for flexibility in provisions of the fishery law that tighten rules if depleted stocks aren't being rebuilt along a 10-year timeline. Fishermen say the 10-year timeline is unscientific and arbitrary and ignores nature's role in recovery.
The rally comes just weeks after a federal review found the appearance of unfairness in fishery law enforcement and showed Northeast fishermen were penalized more frequently. And it's just a few months before Northeast fishermen switch in May to a "catch-share" system of regulation in which groups of fishermen are allotted a certain catch to divide among themselves. Some fishermen say the system will force small boats off the sea and destroy fishing communities.
There are so many concerns that Massachusetts state Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante have scheduled a workshop in Gloucester to help those attending the rally bring a focused message and plan a meaningful follow-up.
Fishing law usually changes slowly, but Tarr said there's no reason lawmakers can't act quickly to fix a dysfunctional system.
"It's an important thing that while we're in Washington, we convey the urgency of the situation," he said.
Amanda Leland of the Environmental Defense Fund said she understands fishermen's frustrations, adding that recent management has cost fishing jobs. But she said fishermen should give the new "catch share" system a chance because it promises the flexibility and accountability that can improve both fish health and profits.
"I think the focus should be on transitioning to management that works, and catch shares is management that works," Leland said.