BOSTON (AP) — The winner of the special election for U.S. Senate will face the tough work of representing a diminished and dispirited Massachusetts fishing fleet in the midst of an industry crisis.
Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez and Democrat U.S. Rep. Edward Markey both say they'll be the better friend to fishermen. But both have backgrounds that give fishermen cause for skepticism.
Gomez is a political newcomer and admittedly unfamiliar with the industry. Markey is a favorite of environmental groups that have pushed policies that fishermen say prevent them from catching enough to make a living.
No matter who wins, Chatham fisherman Peter Taylor says the industry has largely lost faith in lawmakers to make meaningful change in a gridlocked Washington.
"I don't think either one of these guys are going to do anything for the fisheries issue, I really don't," he said. "And, honestly, that is the feeling around."
Tuesday's election comes about seven weeks after New England fishermen were hit with severe cuts — some as high as 78 percent — in their allowed catch of bottom-dwelling groundfish species, such as cod, haddock and flounder.
Regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the deep cuts are needed to restore species that have been struggling for years. But fishermen say fishery science is proven flawed and the industry is being obliterated by unreliable data.
Gomez said he's not qualified to assess fishery science, but he trusts the fishermen who "actually live it and breathe it" about what's going on at sea.
Gomez said while it would be a top priority for him to improve the science and loosen overly restrictive regulations, Markey' "has not fought at all for the fishermen" during his 37-year career.
"He's picked his side and it's not business-friendly, it's not industry-friendly and it's not jobs-friendly," Gomez said
But Markey's office pointed to several recent steps the congressman took to back fishermen, including pushing for federal disaster aid, writing legislation to crack down on seafood fraud and co-sponsoring of a bill to redirect fees collected from importers toward research that benefits fishermen. He also backed federal funding for required, and costly, on-board catch observers
"We need an immediate, all-hands-on-deck effort to give fishermen the respect they deserve now, and create the long-term policies that help fishermen continue to be a vital part of Massachusetts' economy and culture," Markey said.
Scituate fishermen Frank Mirarchi said he hasn't expected much out of Markey during his decades in office, because his district doesn't include any fishing towns. But he was alarmed after watching a congressional hearing this year in which Markey defended existing fishing law, he said.
The law's unscientific, inflexible deadlines for rebuilding fish stocks are at the root of ever-tightening regulations that have forced fishermen — including his son — off the water, Mirarchi said. He's not convinced Gomez understands what needs to change, either, but said, "I give Gomez the benefit of the doubt."
Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman said he distrusts Markey because of his close ties to environmental groups that have fought to restrict the catch in order to conserve fish. The groups have supported Markey for his vigorous advocacy against climate change, among other causes.
Sherman noted a recent Markey fundraiser was hosted by Monica Medina, a former Pew Environment Group officer who led a federal task force on changing to a new fisheries management system that Sherman said has been disastrous for the industry.
"(Markey) is beholden to the heavy-duty environmentalists," Sherman said. "He isn't going to help us one iota."
But Gloucester state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, an attorney who's represented fishermen in lawsuits against regulators, said Markey is fair-minded and won't reflexively support environmental groups, or anyone else.
She said Markey is best equipped to help fishermen during the crisis, since Gomez lacks Markey's influence over decision makers and ability to win votes for disaster funding, better science and other changes. Fishermen shouldn't judge Markey on what he did, or didn't do, for the industry during years when he didn't represent any fishing towns, she said.
A new poll Thursday showed Markey has opened up a double-digit lead over Gomez, 56-36 among 600 voters surveyed. Seven percent were undecided. The UMass Lowell-Boston Herald poll conducted June 15-19 has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Ferrante also rejected the idea that nothing will change for the fleet, no matter who's elected.
"I can understand why fishermen are discouraged right now," she said. "But I think that there's a lot that could be done."