people of the coast: John Bullard of New Bedford

First published in Landings, September, 2017

No one would accuse John Bullard of lacking words. The Regional Administrator for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) likes to talk and has a gift for storytelling. But he also has a gift for listening.

“When I got here in 2012, all the external relationships with this office were broken. We had bad relationships with Congress, with the press, the states, and the fishing industry. So after I met the staff I said, ‘I’ll see you in a couple of months’ and went out to 22 listening sessions, from Maine to North Carolina. I started meeting and listening to the people we are serving,” Bullard said.

Bullard will retire from GARFO in January 2018, capping a long career of public service, not only to the nation’s fishing communities but also to his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. That career began in a most unlikely way: by thumbing rides on sailboats.

GARFO administrator John Bullard will retire in
January, 2018. Bullard has had a long career engaged in fisheries both in New England and at the national level. Photo courtesy of J. Bullard.

Bullard attended Harvard University where he was deeply affected by a major student strike in the spring of 1969. The students were protesting the Vietnam War and the presence of ROTC on campus but also the possible eviction of low-income people from property the University wanted to develop. “I woke up,” Bullard said. “I made up my mind that I was going to fight injustice in the world.” And then he graduated. “I decided to hitchhike by sailboat around the world in order to find myself,” Bullard continued. “I was in Spain when I read a book, Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. I wanted to save the world but he argued that there were plenty of problems at home to tackle. So I decided to go home. I became a lifetime member of the NAACP and helped build low-income housing in New Bedford.”

When Bullard returned he enrolled at MIT to study architecture and city planning, receiving degrees in both subjects in 1974. The topic of his master’s thesis? New Bedford. “I specialized in a place and that place was my hometown. For the first 12 years [after graduating from MIT] I worked in historical preservation. One of my projects helped establish the Historic District designation in the area around the Whaling Museum which also supported the infrastructure of the fishing industry,” he said.

During the 1970s, New Bedford was a booming fishing port. To the Cape Verdeans, Portuguese, and Newfoundlanders who had settled in the city during the 1800s were added new immigrants from around the world, who worked either in the city’s textile factories or its robust scallop and groundfishing fleets. Eventually Bullard’s desire, as he puts it, to “fix up my hometown” led him to run successfully for mayor. He served three terms, from 1986 to 1992.

“New Bedford is a diverse city. Its diversity comes from its heritage as a seaport. Whale ships connected it to the whole world. It’s been a meritocracy from the beginning. People work hard here,” Bullard said. He acknowledged that New Bedford then and to some extent today retains the reputation of a tough city rife with more than its share of problems. “It’s a city that takes body blows and keeps coming back. But it’s a seaport and that makes us different.”

Bullard himself took some body blows while mayor. During his tenure, he introduced community policing, recycling, and AIDS prevention programs. He hired minorities and women to serve in his administration. He encouraged the University of Massachusetts to build the School for Marine Science and Technology, now known as SMAST, in New Bedford. 

His most enduring legacy might be the city’s sewage treatment plant. In the face of a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation and the prospect of punishing fines from the EPA, Bullard managed to bring New Bedford into compliance with the Clean Water Act by finding funding for and building a secondary wastewater treatment plant. But he ran afoul of NIMBY voters when he decided the treatment plant would be built in the south end of New Bedford. In 1992, he lost his reelection bid by 392 votes.

Afterward Bullard worked for a time for the New Bedford Seafood Cooperative. “My job was to organize fishermen. I got to meet fishermen from throughout New England and learn about fisheries management,” Bullard recalled. President Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated and then Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds urged Bullard to lead the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Instead Bullard took a position as the first head of NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Development and Intergovernmental Affairs. There he created programs to assist fishing families throughout the United States and advised communities on sustainable development.

“We lived in D.C. for five years,” Bullard recalled. “My value there was that I was a former mayor, focused on people. Ron Brown [Secretary of Commerce] and Jim Baker [NOAA Administrator] kept saying ‘We have a mayor here. Go ask John’ because I had experience managing people.” Despite enjoying his job, Bullard was always aware of the peculiar character of Washington, D.C. “Washington is not reality. People there can be full of themselves. I remember the first meeting I had at the White House. I was feeling pretty superior as I entered the grounds. And then a bird in a tree crapped on my head. That brought me down to earth pretty quickly,” he laughed.

At the end of five years, Bullard and his wife decided it was time to return to New Bedford. “I had a great job. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do the work, figuring out how fishing communities could be more sustainable. But you become less of a real person and more of a mask each month you are there,” he said.

Back in Massachusetts, Bullard was hired to be the president of the Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole. SEA, as it is known, takes college students to sea for a term to study science, history, and policy. “I was ten years with SEA and it was always on the edge financially. But we expanded its programming and enlarged its reach,” he said. While at SEA Bullard noticed something peculiar about Woods Hole. The tiny village is home to six major federal and private oceanographic institutions and yet, practically everyone he encountered was white. “There were lots of international scientists and gender diversity, but most people were white,” Bullard recalled.

Bullard started talking and listening to people. After discussions with the directors of the six research institutions, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the six that established the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative. Its goal is to provide pathways to opportunity in the sciences to underrepresented groups. One of the ways the Initiative does this is through its Partnership Education Program (PEP). Minority college students come to Woods Hole for the summer to work one-on-one with scientists on research projects. “The 17 students each get to connect with a scientist. It’s not a large number but multiplied over the years, it will be. People are here at Woods Hole because of who they know. This is a way to change the complexion of Woods Hole over time,” Bullard explained (he was awarded the first John K. Bullard award in 2012 by the Initiative for his leadership, vision, and commitment to diversity in the Woods Hole science community).

Bullard retired from SEA in June 2012, and within the year was hired as head of GARFO. “I was a known quantity,” Bullard explained. “I had been around the block and everyone knew who I was.” Coming to GARFO at a time when NOAA, and particularly the NMFS Enforcement Office, was held in extremely low regard didn’t bother Bullard. He knew that he could make tough decisions. “I didn’t care if I got fired, I had already retired!” he said. Bit by bit he rebuilt the stature of the office, remade its ties to fishing communities, and improved morale among the staff. “This is the best bunch I’ve ever worked with,” he said with characteristic energy. “I’ve never been surrounded by such whipsmart, mission-driven people.”

Bullard retains a high opinion of the fishermen he’s met over the years, including Maine Lobstermen’s Association board members Gerry Cushman of Port Clyde and David Cousens of South Thomaston. “A good fisherman has inquisitiveness, resilience, toughness and the ability to be able to do everything,” he said. The same might be said of John Bullard of New Bedford.

John Bullard has listened to any number of constituents over the years. Photo courtesy of J. Bullard.

“MAV first proposed locating the electricity cable on the Bristol peninsula but due to multiple factors, including the identification of historic shrimping areas, alternatives were considered,” Johnson said. “Now the cable is proposed to run into Port Clyde via an existing charted cable way. The intent is to minimize new regulated areas that would impact mobile gear fishermen.”

The project as now envisioned will create two 576-foot-tall turbines. A group of Monhegan residents organized Protect Monhegan in 2016 to voice their opposition to the larger-scale, 20-year project. The group wrote a bill (LD 1262)introduced to the state Legislature this spring, to ensure that the project was not located within ten nautical miles of the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Zone, itself 30 square miles in extent. In 2009, when the state was first identifying possible sites for wind power testing, Mohegan lobstermen were asked where they fished the least in the Conservation Zone. They identified a section in the zone’s southwest corner, near the state’s three-mile boundary, as least fished; that turned into the Monhegan test site.

The bill was opposed by the Monhegan Fishermen’s Alliance, which represents the entire active fleet of lobstermen on Monhegan. The group testified, “the MAV project will undoubtedly have a direct impact on the fleet. It is estimated that the wind turbines and the associated mooring system will impact 10% of the historical fishing area for up to 20 years, though it is still unclear what fishing restrictions will be required.” They continued, “The University of Maine staff has been actively communicating with the fishing fleet about the project and we have been discussing ways to accommodate our fishing tradition in this area and support the Monhegan fishing community.”

The Protect Monhegan bill did not pass in the Legislature. The University of Maine has since stated that it will not allow use of its technology in any gridscale offshore wind project within 10 miles of any inhabited location.

“We’ve been working really hard to get everyone on Monhegan on the same page and understanding the project in full detail,” Johnson said. “There is mistrust because this project has evolved over a number of years. It’s nothing nefarious but it has created some concerns.” MAV holds weekly conference calls with island representatives to keep them abreast of the project, and has conducted on-island and coastal presentations. Project organizers will continue to discuss measures to maximize benefits for both island residents and the state.