The Environmental Defense Fund and a California congressman have undertaken a lobbying campaign on behalf of "catch shares," the policy advanced by national oceans administrator Jane Lubchenco that would privatize the fisheries, converting a commonly held resource into a commodity.
Together, the EDF and Congressman Sam Farr have written and distributed to his House colleagues a letter that holds catch shares out to be nothing short of a panacea for the ailments of a national industry.
EDF also has identified potentially lucrative investment opportunities in catch share futures.
"Research published in the journal Science shows that 'catch shares,' a performance-based approach to management, can stop and even reverse, the collapse of fisheries when properly applied," Farr wrote in his recently distributed form letter.
Nearly identical verbiage about the wonders of catch shares is found in an EDF press release from May. "Recent research published in the journals Science and Nature shows that catch shares can stop and even reverse the collapse of the fisheries worldwide," Amanda Leland, director of EDF's national ocean's policy, wrote at the time.
Addressed to Lubchenco, the nation's leading advocate of catch shares and President Obama's administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Farr's letter is in effect a petition, encouraging supporters to sign and send it on.
A pile of letters would be a sign of support for the policy, which is hardly considered a panacea outside the confines of the biggest environmental non-government organizations, or ENGOS — EDF and the Pew Environment Group — and Lubchenco's office.
The Pew Environment Group is a division of the $4 billion Pew Charitable Trusts, while Lubchenco is a former Pew fellow and a former member of the EDF board. Pew is also moving to the nation's capital; it's announced a decision to buy a 10-story office building opposite the FBI in Washington and move its headquarters from Philadelphia.
In June, a study by two Canadian scientists of the catch share program in the Canadian halibut fishery — where shares are termed "Individual Transferable Quotas" but essentially the same — showed "surprisingly negative economic impacts of the ITQ showcase and great success story," according to the Fisheries Secretariat in Stockholm.
A more immediate problem with catch shares, however, surfaced last week in Gloucester and New England.
The Science and Statistical Committee of the regional Fishery Management Council proposed a severe limit on the next year's catch of pollock — a fraction of this year's catch.
Industry officials, in the midst of organizing voluntary fishing cooperatives known as sectors, responded with warnings that the "weakest link" management system that is part and parcel of the catch share approach used for the groundfishery could destroy the sectors in their inaugural season.
"This stands to break the system," said Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest industry group on the East Coast. "There is not even enough for bycatch. The viability of sectors is potentially fatally compromised by the recommendation of allowable catch for pollock."
Even before the pollock quota figures were released, a grumbling counter-thesis had surfaced; it holds that, while overfishing had severely weakened many fisheries, recent policies were overcompensating and unnecessarily protecting recovered stocks.
Longtime industry columnist and consultant Nils Stolpe's recent analysis in the Internet publication Saving Seafood, was headlined, "Chronic Underfishing: the Real New England Groundfish Crisis."
Though not an opponent of catch shares, Stolpe nonetheless argued that the tool was subject to misuse.
New England's fishery, with Gloucester as a hub, has become the nation's most difficult for management and political coherence of the eight fisheries that ring the nation's coastlines. At her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Lubchenco conceded in questioning by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that the relationship between the federal government and the New England fishing industry had become "dysfunctional" and promised to fix it.
Since then, the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce has undertaken a national probe into allegations of unjust investigations and prosecutions by the police and legal offices that answer to Lubchenco. The impetus for the probe was the Massachusetts congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry.
Lubchenco, meanwhile, has not yet filled the top position at NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
But she has pushed forward with catch shares through the entire national system via a special task force headed by Monica Medina. A former official in the Pew Environment Group, who headed the transition team that settled on Lubchenco to take the reigns of NOAA, she in turn has moved aggressively to replace regional fishery council officials with members sponsored or subsidized by Pew.
The original reporting deadline of August for the Catch Share Task Force has been put off until September. Under current plans, hearings would be held in October; Congress reconvenes in September.
Meanwhile, Farr's press secretary, Tom Mentzer, said the Democratic congressman sought input from EDF about the letter but not verbiage. He also said the letter would help educate the members and measure "how much support there is for (catch shares)."
Farr was a member of a working group of like-minded politicians and academic scientists, notably including Lubchenco, then a member of the EDF board, who last year convened under the lead auspices of the EDF to write the "Oceans of Abundance" report that urged President Obama and Congress to embrace catch shares, assure conservation and prosperity of the fisheries.
The working group relied on an explosive thesis, proposed in 2003 by a pair of scientists working with Pew funding, that the super predators of the ocean were all but history — victims of rampant overfishing.
That claim was used to support a more vivid one — that the future holds a dystopia for man when "swarms of jellyfish" will inherit the oceans. And such claims were described by some — even in the scientific community — as pseudo science and a dangerous product of "faith-based fisheries" advanced by environmentalists to create experiments designed to fit pre-set ends.
Ray Hilborn, author of "Faith-based fisheries," joined with Boris Worm, co-author of the original paper on the slaughter of the alpha predator fish, in a major study with more than a dozen other world scientists that was released last month. While an inevitable set of compromises, the new study seemed to dash the direst predictions.
Absent from the debate in New England about the need for catch shares was any discussion of the investment opportunities, or how the new system's financial dynamics would work. But in April, David Festa, a West Coast vice president of EDF, spoke at an investors' conference in California and preached the value of buying catch shares.
A longtime close associate of Lubchenco at EDF — they taught classes together at Oregon State University, where she was based — Festa calculated that buying catch shares could yield returns of up to 400 percent.
"It's not telecom money, but it's real money," Festa advised a small but influential private audience of mutual and hedge fund managers and ENGO officials at an April 28 panel on "Innovative Funding for Sustainable Fisheries and Oceans" at the Milkin Institute.
After Festa's advice was published in the Times, Lubchenco announced that there were ways to prevent the transfer of equity out of indigenous hands, and said work on that part of the problem was essential.
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com.