Charlie Baker deserved every bit of mockery he got in the final days of the governor’s race for making up his fish tale either in part or in whole. But whether it’s true or not, Baker’s attempt to position himself as one of the harvesters of the sea shows how Democrats have blown an opportunity to connect with fishing communities using their core message.
Martha Coakley’s campaign pounced on Baker’s fishy story, but all she could do was point out this one apparent untruth – using the story to show Baker didn’t care about fishing communities would be nearly impossible, because there’s virtually no daylight between Massachusetts Democrats and Republicans on fishing policy.
From pro-business centrists like Coakley to pro-worker progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Democrats have gone along with the “fishermen getting squeezed by big gubmint” story. Both Democrats and Republicans blast federal regulators and attack catch limits, perpetuating the myth that the fish are out there but those JACKBOOTED GOVERNMENT THUGS would let us catch them. If you believe government is the fishing community’s biggest problem, are you really going to vote for the Democrat?
Last month, Baker was out claiming to have stumped fishery scientists, only to have Globe reporter Laura Crimaldi immediately give the easy scientific rebuttal:
“I’ve been struck by the dynamic in which the federal government says there are no fish and then fishermen go out and fish for a few hours and catch 10,000 pounds or 5,000 pounds,” Baker said.
Scientists say cod often congregate around their spawning areas as their numbers decline, making it easier for fishermen to catch them.
Baker’s attack ignores just how easy modern technology makes it to catch 10,000 pounds of fish even when there are very few fish in the sea. Industrial fishing in 2014 isn’t about a few intrepid fishermen tossing out lines and hoping to get lucky. It’s about GPS technology, cutting edge radar, and huge nets that can sweep up every available fish in a matter of minutes. God help cod if they try to get together to spawn – they’ll be found out & captured faster than Agent Smith hunting down Neo in The Matrix.
But in Massachusetts, it’s a bipartisan cause to embrace classic Bush/Cheney scientific analysis: Any study that shows fewer fish is junk science; any study that shows more fish is sound science. Some folks may say fishing communities will only support politicians who oppose catch limits, but that’s self-fulfilling logic: When do they ever hear anything else?
There are three main problems with this strategy: The fish really are gone, overfishing really is to blame, and it ignores the inequality at the root of the problem.
The myth that fish are simply poorly counted persists because it’s easier for the fishing industry to blame others than to look in the mirror. New England cod stocks and catches have continued to plummet, hitting a new all-time low this year. I agree with the fishing industry that catch limits “aren’t working” – due to political concessions, they’re wildly insufficient, and global warming is already making things worse:
Scientists have documented fish moving to cooler waters. Troubling discoveries show disruptions to the marine food web, with some predators unable to find the small prey fish they need. Other research has linked the warming trend to reduced abundance of the microscopic plankton that feed many juvenile fish.
Fishing industry claims that somehow scientists are just mis-counting the fish might make sense if fish populations were healthy elsewhere, but they’re not – in every ocean on Earth, fish that were once plentiful are increasingly rare thanks to technological advances have made overfishing easier than ever. If not for advances in fish farming, staples like shrimp and salmon might be pricey luxuries.
Despite those challenges, most other regions in the country are successfully rebuilding fish populations and enjoying the economic benefits – it’s really only New England that stands out as the poster child of overfishing and dependence on government disaster relief. In one telling contrast, both New England and the Pacific regions had ground fish disaster declarations due to overfishing in the 1990s. New England has persisted in denial of science and weak plans to rebuild depleted stocks, while the Pacific took the necessary steps to end overfishing. Fast forward to present and the Pacific just had most of their ground fish stocks declared rebuilt, and even got a seal of approval from Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable fish list. New England, meanwhile, is still mired in crisis and seeking yet another round of disaster assistance.
The real story of fishing community struggles in Massachusetts today is one of inequality. Reduced catches mean fewer deck hand jobs, but they also mean higher prices and exorbitant profits for boat owners. Just last week, New Bedford was named the top US fishing port in revenue for the 14th year in a row thanks to tightly-managed scallops selling for $20+ per pound. The money pours in, but it doesn’t trickle down. The groundfish industry isn’t doing nearly as well, but those boat captains are cashing huge disaster relief checks while their employees struggle.
Gov. Deval Patrick and other supporters of the offshore wind industry get it – as much as offshore wind is critically needed to cut climate-disrupting carbon pollution, the jobs it brings targeted to port cities like New Bedford are just as important. To hear Charlie Baker tell it, New Bedford’s history goes from whaling to cod to hope the cod are still there. That’s a story of decline and decay. Deval Patrick’s timeline of whaling to cod to Cape Wind is much more compelling, and it’s one Democrats like Martha Coakley have failed to articulate. Other targeted, progressive projects like South Coast Rail are just as important.
But we can’t revitalize fishing ports one project at a time any more than we can revitalize idustrial cities job by job. Progressives need to identify and unite around more ambitious solutions to distinguish themselves from Republicans in cities from Gloucester to Springfield to Fall River, where Baker scraped together just enough votes to win.
The existing Democratic platform has failed to address chronic poverty and persistently high unemployment. We need to think big and as TPM’s Josh Marshall recently pointed out, Democrats don’t yet have an inequality answer. Is it a basic income that would help boat workers, notoriously bad at stretching paychecks, make ends meet during lean times? Maybe social security for all? For a small step forward, how about postal banking?
For now, progressives should stand up for science by supporting fish habitat protections and catch limits that allow as much take as possible while also preserving fish stocks for future generations. You can email NOAA right now via Pew’s action alert, or if you’re feeling more ambitious, you can speak up at a public hearing.