Concern about the lack of information regarding potential impacts of offshore wind development to the fishing industry was high on the agenda when the top fisheries regulatory official in the nation came to New Bedford on Tuesday.
Janet Coit, who was appointed as the head of NOAA Fisheries last summer, was invited to the closed-door meeting with a diverse coalition of industry leaders, scientists and city officials at a pivotal moment for the nation’s top-earning commercial fishing port. Under the Department of Commerce, Coit oversees the nation’s eight regional fishery regulatory councils. It was her first official meeting in New Bedford since the appointment.
The meeting comes as the city’s fishing industry faces what many see as threats on different fronts: offshore wind development, environmental challenges to fish stocks, and the recent trend of foreign and domestic private equity firms casting their net on regional fisheries like groundfish and scallops.
“Everybody there was united by a concern for the success of commercial fisheries and New Bedford’s role as the most prominent commercial fishing port in the country,” said Bob Vanasse, who runs a communications firm that represents both the Port of New Bedford and some of the largest commercial fishing companies on the East Coast. He added that the meeting was organized by Mayor Jon Mitchell.
Some in attendance urged a comprehensive, baseline study to set the stage for accurately determining the potential impacts of offshore wind development to the fishing industry.
“The biggest point I made was the fear of the unknown,” said New Bedford scallop vessel owner Eric Hansen, who is also president of the Fisheries Survival Fund and was recently appointed to his first term on NOAA’s regional regulatory council, beginning in September. “You can’t just have a snapshot. You have to have a long-term study to get the baseline. Then from there we can find out the impact.”
The Biden administration fast-tracked the permitting process for offshore wind, with Vineyard Wind slated to become the first large-scale project in regional waters. The joint venture secured all necessary permitting in 2021 and aims to complete construction by 2024.
Details of the meeting are vague, as it was not made open to the public. But Hansen said that Coit was receptive to the concerns. “She understood the reasoning behind it and thought it was a good idea,” he said.
Briefly discussed was the controversial, industry-backed scallop leasing proposal, said three in attendance. The proposal has split local fishermen and owners of scallop vessels. Many fishermen have voiced opposition in a series of public hearings held through the summer, fearing that it will lead to further consolidation and outsized influence of Wall Street over the port and their livelihoods. Some of the largest commercial fishing companies have stated their support, saying it will improve efficiency and allow companies to trim operational costs.
“[The proposal] was mentioned, but it wasn’t discussed at length,” Hansen said, adding that the decision will be made on the level of the regional regulatory council, not from the top-down. “Nobody wanted to speak out of turn,” he said. Prior to a vote, the regional council will review public comments at their next series of meetings — scheduled between Sept. 26-29 in Gloucester.
As head of NOAA Fisheries, Coit succeeded Chris Oliver, a Trump-era appointee who now works for Seattle-based American Seafoods. The company is owned in part by Bregal Partners, a private equity firm that also owns New Bedford based Blue Harvest Fisheries, which itself claims to be “single largest groundfish permit holder in New England.”
Eric Schwaab held the position under the Obama administration. He now works as Senior Vice President of Oceans for the Environmental Defense Fund — an environmentalist organization with funding from major corporations like Walmart, which is one of the largest seafood distributors in the country.
Coit describes herself as a conservationist. Prior to her appointment at NOAA, she served as director for Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, where she worked to “improve natural resource conservation, promote locally grown food, including seafood, and address the climate crisis.” Before that, she was state director of the Nature Conservancy — an environmental organization with over $1 billion in annual revenue that also holds permits for about 5% of New England’s groundfish quota, according to NOAA’s regional database. The organization collaborates with fishing cooperatives to lease those permits to fishermen, a regional program director said.
Coit was appointed in 2021 by former Rhode Island Governor and current Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.
Those at the meeting said it was constructive but not conclusive. According to the mayor’s office, others in attendance included: Brian Rothschild (former dean of the UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology), Steve Cadrin (groundfish scientist with UMass Dartmouth), Rich Canastra (BASE seafood auction), Mike Quinn (Quinn Fisheries), and a representative for Michael Pentony (regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries).
“[Coit] comes to this role with a lot of experience,” Vanasse said. “She understands the need for quality science . . . We appreciate the opportunity to bring our concerns directly to her.”
“The City was pleased to host Assistant Administrator Coit and key leaders from our commercial fishing industry,” Mayor Mitchell wrote to The Light. “The Port of New Bedford’s interests are best served by a robust engagement with federal policymakers, and that approach was reconfirmed by the openness and candor that Janet demonstrated in sitting down with us.”
Reach Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.