Tucked into the compromise federal budget for the remainder of fiscal 2011, a somewhat watered down version of the so-called Jones amendment would bar the Obama administration from initiating any new catch share programs on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts during the spending cycle that ends Sept. 30.
New language was added last weekend to the bipartisan bill, launched by Congressman Walter Jones, that would allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue spending on development of the controversial fishery management regimens. The changes were added by staffs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.
But the dispute over catch shares creates for the president a discomforting intra-Democratic Party clash between green interests — investment bankers allied with some environmentalists — and the small fishing boats and waterfront businesses who are supported by big cogs in the Democratic coalition, including U.S. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Chuck Schumer of New York.
The catch share budget is $36 million, a small fraction of the scale of modern American government spending.
However, the anti-catch share amendment written by Jones, a coastal North Carolina Republican, and co-sponsored by Congressmen Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, both Democrats, was more about flagging down the administration's rush to steer fisheries toward a commodities market, with fishermen buying, selling, leasing or trading "shares" of tightly allocated catch limits among themselves or to larger boat and corporations and outside investors.
"This (amendment) is a shot in the arm for fishermen and a shot across the bow of (NOAA Fisheries)," Jones said in a statement Friday. "The last thing our government should be doing in these economic times is spending millions of taxpayers dollars to expand programs that will put even more Americans out of work.
"(NOAA Fisheries) would be wise to take heed to the opposition of fishermen, the public and the Congress to their catch share agenda; we're not going away," Jones said.
The House approved Jones' amendment to bar funding for any new catch share programs on a 251-151 vote in February that seemed to surprise even many catch share opponents.
The next few weeks brought intense lobbying of the Senate, which was thought to be cooler to the amendment.
Praised by its advocates — notably NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and the Environmental Defense Fund, where she served as a board officer before joining the Obama administration — for creating more rational and less wasteful harvesting, catch shares are also hated for inducing a radical consolidation of fishing fleets and by inducing Wall Street investment that many fear will lead to absentee fleet ownership and control.
Lubchenco had taken pains to keep her planned spread of catch shares low key. Although she helped write a manifesto for catch shares for EDF, Lubchenco did not raise the proposal in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in January 2009.
Earlier this week, in testimony before the same committee about her $5.5 billion NOAA budget proposal — about a fifth of which goes toward fisheries — Lubchenco went out of her way to emphasize that catch shares are a voluntary choice, made by regional councils that include members from the industry.
But U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, would have none of it.
"Fishermen in my state don't consider it voluntary, and don't like the program. They feel it's putting them out of business," Ayotte said. "We here in Congress have an obligation to look at this and do things differently."
Others more sympathetic to catch shares, such as U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, nonetheless, expressed impatience that Lubchenco's agency was using "poor science" to determine the vitality of the stocks and thus were unnecessarily low-balling allocations, undercutting the value of the shares.
In the New England groundfishery, now ending its first year under catch share management, Snowe said only 16 percent of the catchable Georges Bank haddock and 31 percent of the pollock will be landed. The fishing year ends April 30.
Justin Kenney, Lubchenco's spokesman, said he could not immediately ascertain which, if any, catch share programs under development might be constrained by the prohibition against launches before Oct. 1.
Asked for Lubchenco's interpretation of the congressional action, Kenney released a statement to the Times.
"It is important to remember that the existing catch share-type programs in place today originated not in Washington but in fishing communities," he said in an email. "These are extremely challenging times for America's fishermen and we believe they need every option on the table to manage their business successfully, including catch shares."
The catch share regimen in the New England groundfishery and a program in the West Coast trawl groundfishery are under attack in separate federal law suits. Both challenge the fairness of the allocation of the total catch.
The lead plaintiffs in New England, the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, have also reported intense negative impact on port economies from the catch share regimen.
The Commerce Department, parent to NOAA Fisheries, has agreed to send special remediation teams to each of the major fishing port cities of New England to determine the losses and recommend strengthening policies.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.