By Richard Gaines
---- — NOAA's annual statistical progress report on the vitality of the nation's fishing industry, which traditionally accentuates the positive, indicates that 2011 produced the "highest landings volume since 1997 and the highest value" in dollars "ever recorded."
The massive document of narrative, charts and figures provided fodder for the testimony Wednesday by Samuel D. Rauch III, the deputy assistant administrator at NOAA, before the House Natural Resources Committee's opening hearing in the lengthy process of rewriting and reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Pulling from "Fisheries Economics of the United States 2011," Rauch testified to the committee that the seafood industry — including imports and multiplier effects — generated $129 billion in sale impacts and supported 1.2 million jobs while the recreational fishing sector generated $70 billion in sales impacts and 455,000 jobs.
But questions about the credibility, historical and editorial objectivity of the report from multiple sources across the industry and elsewhere are raising doubts about the integrity of the document, which was developed in the Economics and Social Analysis Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Office of Science and Technology in Silver Spring, Md.
Members of the recreational fishing sector have questioned statistical claims about the growth of their industry between 2008 and 2011. And the fishing industry website SavingSeafood.org has disputed the claim in the narrative report about NOAA's resurrection of the scalloping industry..
Finally, "Fisheries Economic of the United States 2011" restates the boiler plate language used by recently departed NOAA Administrator Jane Lubehenco to explain the benefits of managing wild resource fisheries through commodity markets trading in catch shares, but it neglects to note that the catch share experiment in the Northeast groundfishery since 2010 has brought the commercial industry into a socio-economic disaster, which was declared by the acting commerce secretary in September 2012. The 2011 annual report was published in January 2013, a month before Lubchenco resigned to return to academia.
The Recreational Fishing Alliance as well as Ed Lofgren, of 3A Marine Service in Hingham found the claims in the report of a powerful economic growth — especially 40 percent growth in recreational fishing jobs from 2010 to 2011 — incredible.
The report states that recreational fishing jobs increased from 326,188 to 454,542, the 40 percent spike which was featured in Rauch's opening remarks and his written testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee. Over the same 12 months, income was said to climb from $14.6 million to $20.5 million, an increase of 40 percent, while sales of boats jumped from $49.8 million to $70.3 million, another 40 percent spike. Trips by recreational boats declined from 72,464 to 70,194, according to NOAA's report.
"This sham of a report is worth mulling over," said Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance and president of the New York Sportfishing Federation. "While the federal unemployment rate from 2008 to 2011 increased from 5.1 per cent to 9.1 per cent, our own Commerce Department (NOAA) just announced that job growth in the recreational fishing sector climbed 18 percent," for the three years and 40 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Over this period, Hutchinson noted, the gross domestic product increased at an annual rate of 1.02 percent or 3 percent from 2008 through 2011.
A member of the board of the Mass Marine Trades Association, Lofgren said he agreed with Hutchinson that the reporting was "ridiculous and worthless." He said sales by his South Shore company averaged 100 boats a year prior to 2008, but with the general economic decline, sales slumped badly.
"We'd be lucky to sell a couple a dozen boats a year" since then, he added.
One possible explanation for the figures which fly in the face of the industry's experience is NOAA's failure to comply with a congressional mandate to complete a transition from a discredited information gathering system for recreatonal data to a better one. Rauch was questioned about the progress in achieving full reliance on the National Angler Registry by Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat. "We had a 2009 deadline that has not\entirely been met; it's more of a transition than a flipping of the switch," Rauch conceded in response.
SavingSeafood.org took issue with the section of the NOAA report that implied an emergency closing of scalloping grounds in 1994 triggered a revitalization of the industry,
"Between 1990 and 1994, there was a 68 percent drop in total landings of sea scallop in the New England Region from 24 million pounds to 7.6 million pound," the report stated. "Additionally, an Emergency Action was enacted in December 1994, which closed three large fishing grounds on the Northeast Continental Shelf to rebuild certain groundfish stocks, but which also affected a large percentage of the scallop biomass. Portions of these closed areas were reopened to scallop fishing in 1999, resulting in a total catch of 13.7 million pounds.
But SavingSeafood reported that NOAA overlooked the contributions of non-government "researchers whose groundbreaking work is widely acknowledged to have demonstrated NOAA's scallop assessments to be inadequate."
The website specifically referred to video technology developed at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. In addition, Saving Seafood executive director Bob Vanasse said, "the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Coonemesset Farm Foundation and the Fisheries Survival Fund played essential roles in conducting research and developing improved technology, and in working with the Science Center in Woods Hole."
"The scallop recovery was not simply a function of the area closures as the report implies," Vanasse said.
NOAA did not respond to inquires from the Times about the report.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.