If President Carter were to pitch his energy message to the trawlermen whose boats are docked in the Northeast's busiest fishing port, he would probably be met with all the enthusiasm of a chill sea breeze.
"We've been 100 percent, eyes-closed, sold out to big business," said Paul Brayton, as he mended the nylon mesh of the huge dragnet he uses to snatch flounder, haddock and cod from the ocean floor. "We're just pawns in the presidential game."
Brayton is one of New Bedford's sea-wizzened men who fear that the Carter administration, caught in a tangle of anxiety over energy, has abandoned the fisherman in a symbolic gesture that may yield little fuel -- and much environmental havoc -- for this heavily oil-dependent region.
In a pact engineered by the White House, the Interior and Commerce departments last week agreed to permit oil and gas exploration on Georges Bank, a blustery stretch of ocean southeast of Cape Cod that for 350 years has been one of the world's richest fishing grounds.
Fueled by public assurances from the Carter administration that there will be adequate safeguards to protect the $1 billion-a-year fishing industry in the North Atlantic, oil companies will soon begin exploratory drilling along Georges Bank.
"We have attempted to minimize the risk to the greatest extent possible," said Richard A. Frank, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
However, the Commerce Department's chief representative in the Georges Bank negotiations added: "From the fishing point of view, it is preferable not to drill -- there is a tremendous risk of danger."
Evelyn Murphy, former Massachusetts environmental affairs secretary and a presidential appointee to the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, charged the decision was politically motivated.
The president's support for offshore oil development, she said, outweighed concern for the fisheries.
It is clear that the White House has thought only about the symbolism of solving the energy problem," she said.
"Carter has made it clear we have to go along with exploration at all costs to ease dependence on foreign oil," said Harry Swain, a veteran fisherman. "But we're talking about food -- you can't burn it, but it's still a source of energy."
Georges Bank yields about 17 percent of the world's commercial fish catch -- the collateral in a high-stakes gamble for what Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus concedes could be less than a 28-day supply of oil and a smaller reserve of natural gas for the nation.
"Exploring for gas and oil in a rich fishing area like Georges Bank is like tearing up the cornfields of Iowa to get topsoil for potted plants," argued Sarah Bates of the Conservation Law Foundation.
The Boston-based environmental group, which blocked with a federal district court injunction the original Georges Bank lease sale scheduled for January 1978, will decide later this week whether to try to prevent the scheduled Oct. 30 Georges Bank lease sale in Providence, Rhode Island.
Though the injunction was lifted by the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February, the Conservation Law Foundation pressed for assurances of environmental protection by asking the Commerce Department to designate 20,000 square miles of Georges Bank as a marine sanctuary.
Had Commerce gone along, oil and gas exploration would have been permitted and interests would have been accorded some legally protected preferences on Georges Bank.
The arrangement, however, was opposed successfully by the Interior Department, which has a White House mandate to encourage offshore oil exploration. The more powerful Interior Department sent Commerce a letter noting that the establishment of a marine sanctuary on Georges Bank would infringe on Interior's jurisdiction over energy development.
In a compromise reached last week between Interior and Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Commerce agreed to forego the marine sanctuary scheme in exchange for stiffer ground rules on the lease sale.
Interior agreed to exclude twelve tracts spanning 68,000 acres of ocean bottom because of the risk of damage to the underwater canyons and formations which are the habitats of some 260,000 lobsters per square mile.
An interagency committee to watch over drilling activities has been set up by the Interior Department, Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency. It is empowered to make recommendations directly to the secretary of the Interior.
"That's some kind of committee," said Paul Brayton, one of New Bedford's more outspoken fishermen. "It's kind of like hiring the fox to watch the chickens."
However, the decision was greeted cheerfully in New Bedford's city hall.
"We need the fuel," said Mayor John Markey, a longtime advocate of offshore oil exploration which is expected to bring thousands of construction jobs and subsequent prosperity to the area.
"We are not willing for forego the fishing industry, but we shouldn't shut everything down just because there could conceivably be an oil blowout," the mayor said.
Massachusetts Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, who has clashed with offshore enthusiast Edward J. King on the Georges Bank issue, was less optimistic.
The environmental guarantees in the new pact, he said, are "just not adequate to protect the enormously valuable resource which is at stake." Bellotti, one of those who originally intervened against the lease sale, is attempting to sway federal authorities into devising further safeguards before next month. If unsuccessful, he said, he would press his claim in federal court.