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November 20, 2012

Fish quota limits spark debate

In May 2010, just at the moment NOAA put into operation a free trading commodity market for groundfishermen who were given an allocation and joined into a fishing cooperative, a perfect storm of constrictions began strangling the industry.

Hard catch limits and penalties merged with deadline-driven rebuilding requirements came into being just as science-based assessments of the stocks led to government decisions to constrict the availability of the commodity, all sending the industry spiraling into a crisis that many in industry, including Gloucester’s Vito Giacalone, saw coming.

As policy director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, Giacalone and other members of his organization had read the converging vectors of regulation and prepared as well as possible by establishing 13 sectors — the fishing cooperatives that aggregated fishermen largely by port, gear type and boat size — and digging in to make the best of the awful circumstances.

Now, with the crisis unfolding, with NOAA certain to mandate even more extreme constrictions in the harvesting of fish stocks next year, and with harvesters struggling to hang on by leasing out their allocation to bigger operators, the coalition has recommended against a corrective initiative — a move favored by many fishermen, non-government organizations and NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator, John Bullard.

The New England Fishery Management Council last week came to a consensus that the “disaster” made of the groundfishery required belated intervention — an attempt to preserve fleet diversity between big and little boats and regulate the free market to bar more of the $80 million industry from falling into a small number of big hands and external investors.

The council’s decision to undertake the writing of a proposed Amendment 18 — a full scale revision of Amendment 16, which includes the fishery’s catch share framework — does not imply that anything will happen quickly. But the debate has already begun.

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