By Jack Spillane
Some say he came late to the party.
Whether that's true or not, what is undeniable at this point is that John Kerry has gotten religion in a big way on the desperate plight of the New England fishery.
Sen. Kerry, a longtime and ardent environmentalist, is thought among many movers and shakers on the waterfront to have largely left fisheries issues to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
This week, however, Kerry jumped into the issue of fisheries regulations in the same way Kennedy certainly would have, had he been alive.
A strongly-worded letter from the state's senior senator called out Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco like never before.
Kerry outlined a four-point plan demanding satisfaction on all of the issues that Northeast fishermen believe are necessary to save their drowning industry: a disaster declaration to provide emergency financial relief to the fishery; increased catch-share limits necessary to keep small-boat fishermen in business; delays of penalties for unfair fishing regulations; and more reporting time for fishermen who have been abused in the past by NOAA.
Perhaps most importantly, Kerry's polite, though steely missive included a demand for more timely science and stock assessments so that Northeast fisheries regulations will no longer be based on outdated data.
"This is an opportunity to repair a relationship between the Department of Commerce, NOAA and the fishing communities that has been very badly strained these last few years," he wrote.
That last was an understatement.
The relationship is not strained; it's torn beyond repair, at least with the current NOAA administrators and middle-men continuing in office.
Now, fishing is a small business and its boat owners tend to be Republicans.
But both the chief publicist for the industry, Bob Vanasse of Saving Seafood, and the pre-emininent Northeast fisheries scientist, Brian Rothschild, said Kerry has done what needed to be done.
"In the last few weeks I would say Kerry has seen the true dimension of these environmental organizations and how they relate to fishermen in the Northeast," said Rothschild, the man who built the UMass Dartmouth School of Marine Science and Technology into a major ocean science center.
The working people of New Bedford need Kerry to be as strong an advocate as longtime Congressman Barney Frank and freshman Sen. Scott Brown, Rothschild said.
Kerry, he noted, is in a more powerful position than either Frank or Brown.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his committee will either recommend or reject Locke as ambassador to China. Rothschild noted it took Locke 63 days to respond to a plea for emergency help from local fishermen.
"So now we're going to make somebody like this ambassador to China?" he asked.
Vanasse, a longtime mover in Washington Republican circles, said Kerry's past is "water under the bridge."
"So far, he's doing what he said he would do," he said. "It's a really good letter, he's taking a really strong stand and he summoned an agency head and cabinet officer to his office. From what I heard, it was a pretty intense meeting."
Kerry, reached late Friday, said he hears the frustrations of fishermen who are in deep economic distress.
"I understand the anxieties in the industry," he said. "Can I tell you that the federal government has always done the best by them? I don't think it has. But it's not because we haven't tried."
Kerry said the delegation had been making "very good progress" on changing the direction of the arrogant attitudes at NOAA, even before Locke was nominated.
But the senator kept his options open.
"If I'm unhappy and don't think the job's getting done, that will be an issue for later," he said, of the Locke confirmation hearings.
It didn't sound like it would be necessary, however, as Kerry said he expects "some positive announcements some time next week."
And if John Kerry, in the end, turns out to be the shaker who finally moves NOAA, even when Ted Kennedy couldn't do it, that would be very good progress indeed.