GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 20, 2009

Catch-share rejections cloud talks

By Richard Gaines

A move is afoot within the federal fishery management system to increase the protection of cod and pollock from the majority of the groundfishing fleet that has rejected the chance to join a cooperative or sector and participate in the "catch share" experiment now underway here.

The movers behind the tightening of cod and pollock restrictions are described only as "members of the fishing industry" by Patricia Kurkul, the federal regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But their identities will become known by Wednesday afternoon.

That is when the New England Fishery Management Council, holding its bimonthly, three-day meeting this time in Plymouth, is scheduled to consider Kurkul's suggestion that the two-tiered system created to launch catch shares in New England in May 2010 needs fixing.

The Plymouth meeting arrives with the claims for catch shares under challenge from multiple sources, including Canada where EcoTrust Canada has challenged claims by the Environmental Defense Fund, where the catch share idea was created decades ago.

EDF believes catch shares will align investment influence with conservation aims.

Everywhere that catch shares have gone, rapid consolidation of the industry has followed. EcoTrust Canada objected to that aspect of the experiment in British Columbia.

Reducing the number of boats fishing is a national policy goal that catch shares are certain to bring about.

Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "says a significant fraction of the vessels will need to be removed to make the fishery sustainable and profitable," according to NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen. "She thinks capacity reduction is necessary."

The gist of the problem for the creation of sectors — cooperatives of fishermen working under regulations based on their actual catch — and a common pool of fishermen — working under existing controls limiting their fishing grounds and days at sea — was the two sets of rules written in June during a marathon session in Portland, Maine, governing the competing sides of a fishery that had been engineered intentionally into regulatory schizophrenia.

The rules for the sector members working off catch shares were said to be too constricting while the rules for the common poolers, controlled only by effort restrictions, were said to be too loose.

While catch share limits are to be set in Plymouth, the common pool is looking at no limits on pollack and a 2,000 pound daily limit on cod.

Kurkul wrote to the council that "certain industry members believe ... a pollock derby" might have been unintentionally created by the setting of such lax controls on members of the common pool.

Combined with a tough limit proposed for sector members' pollock catch — about one third of last year's landings by the same people — sector organizers saw a tilt toward the common pool that raised the specter of a financial disaster.

A failure of sectors would be a failure for catch shares, and that would give a black eye to a management scheme that has become the panacea for the Obama administration and Lubchenco, its chief of oceans and fisheries

"On the one hand," said Vito Giacalone, the Gloucester-based industry and sector visionary, "Lubchenco's message is that we've got to get businesslike. On the other hand, they're creating the most unfavorable business conditions (for the sectors) — and it's all manmade."

At the Northeast Seafood Coalition that he helped create early in the decade, Giacalone has organized 13 sectors for different types of fishing and ports. He said that commitment is intended to make the best of the government's determination to make New England's groundfishery a catch share industry.

The feared results from these alleged imbalances were interrelated — too much pressure on pollock and cod, overfished species in fragile recovery, preferential opportunities for those who chose to remain outside the catch share sector system, and impediments to the profitability of sectors.

By the Sept. 1 deadline for signing on and reserving a place in one of the sectors, only 723 of the eligible groundfish permitholders — or 49 percent — took a place in one of the 17 sectors, while 752 permitholders — 51 percent — opted to stay independent.

"These are maximum numbers for sectors and minimums for the common pool, since vessels can drop out of a sector and join the common pool up until the end of April," according to NMFS spokeswoman Teri Frade.

Sector application deadline was Sept. 1.

Thus the industry heads to Plymouth knowing that at least half the fleet has decided against participating in New England's great catch share/sector experiment.

"Nobody's made up their mind yet," said Richard Burgess, who heads one of the 13 sectors organized at the Northeast Seafood Coalition in Gloucester. Burgess operates four gillnetters out of Gloucester.

Under the Magnuson Act, the alternative to the division of the fishery into completely different business models, sectors working off catch shares, and common poolers that remain under effort controls would have been an industry referendum on a full immediate conversion to catch shares.

And the thin majority against that way of fishing, as expressed in their decision to remain independent, suggests the risk of putting the catch share option to a vote.

Further clouding matters is the apparently widespread inaccuracy of catch histories used by NMFS to determine relative catch shares. Revelations in recent weeks brought to light the longstanding recognition by Kurkul that the service was incapable technologically to calculate accurately the 10-year catch histories from 1996, which the council in Portland decided to use as the measure of each share of the total catch.

Kurkul's office has invited fishing boat owners to file their own catch history data by Oct. 31, but corrections to faulty catch histories will not be available for the 2010 fishing season. Pollock was the pivotal stock according to industry members interviewed by the Times.

The sector members working off a predetermined share of the allowable catch in all species of groundfish were allowed only about one third of the pollock taken last year while the common poolers were constrained in pollock only by the effort controls such as days at sea and gear restrictions.

A secondary concern was the 2,000-pound trip limit on cod for the common poolers.

Without embracing the complaints, Kurkul forcefully added to the agenda of the meeting in Plymouth.

"A trip limit for pollack (for common poolers) was suggested as an appropriate management tool to strengthen Amendment 16," she wrote. "Industry also expressed concern about whether Amendment 16 common pool management measures would be sufficient for cod, given that vessels selecting common pool versus sector management measures based on which program provides the opportunity to catch more fish."

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com