The highlight of NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco's first new budget for federal fisheries is a $54-million investment in catch shares, the hotly disputed regulatory system that's set to take effect in New England May 1.
But, to maximize the size of the catch share fund, $6 million would be shifted from "cooperative research," and $11.4 million shifted from "fisheries research and management programs."
The budget makes clear that the administration is moving full speed ahead with catch share management, which regulates fishermen's work based on hard catch allocation figures, rather than by limiting their days at sea. A partial rollout will convert the strongest section of the groundfishery into voluntary fishing cooperatives called "sectors" that will share the total allowable catch based on landing histories.
"When participants have a secure portion of the catch," reads the Statement of Need and Economic Benefits in Lubchenco's budget submission to Congress, "they gain the flexibility to make business decisions that improve safety, enhance the value of their share and promote the sustainable fishing of the stocks."
The Environmental Defense Fund, which has been catch shares' biggest champion, greeted NOAA's catch share-focused budget with applause.
"This federal investment comes at the right time because under conventional management fishermen struggle to make ends meet and fish stocks continue to decline," Amanda Leeland, EDF's oceans policy team director, wrote on the blog for the organization, which promotes market-based solutions to environmental problems. "Fishermen are increasingly embracing catch shares because they boost profitability, wages, and safety."
But four responders yesterday thought otherwise.
Mary Beth de Poutiloff, a fisherman from Provincetown, countered that "fishermen are not embracing catch shares."
"This is evident by the protest in October in Gloucester, and the (Washington,) D.C., rally scheduled for Feb. 24. (It) boosts wages, profitability and safety for investors, but (not) for the fishermen."
Food & Water Watch and the Pew Environment Group also questioned the priorities in the NOAA fisheries budget.
F&WW opposes the virtual privatization of common wealth of the seas that the catch share system brings, and as such, is a fierce opponent of the national policy being pushed by the Obama administration through NOAA.
Pew, on the other hand, has generally supported the catch share program fused to the sectors or fishing cooperatives that has been engineered over the past years for rollout in New England this spring.
But Pew parts ways with EDF and the administration by questioning the near universal applicability of catch shares in which EDF and Lubchenco, a former EDF vice chairwoman, believe.
Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for Pew, questioned the decision to subordinate cooperative research to catch share implementation.
"They shouldn't be cutting that at all," Crockett said of the research funding. "New money is one thing; sacrificing other programs is a bad idea."
But Lubchenco's budget statement claimed that "the scientific evidence is compelling that catch shares can also restore the health of ecosystems and put fisheries on the path to profitability and sustainability.
"A recent Environmental Defense study, 'Sustaining America's Fisheries and Fishing Communities,' shows catch shares protect the environment, increase profits, provide higher quality fish, create more full-time jobs and save lives," the budget statement indicates.
The cited study, however, was not peer reviewed and, in form and approach, is more a document for political influence than scientific scholarship. Among the studies cited by EDF was one highly-disputed peer-reviewed study by Boris Worm and colleagues from Science Magazine in 2006. It predicted that all seafood producing species' stocks will collapse by 2048.
From that paper grew a global obsession with the impending oceanic dystopia. Last night, Google research indicated that the 2048 date has attracted 38.6 million hits. But there is fierce debate about the scholarship behind the claim — which Worm conceded privately was meant as a news hook.
"The projection is inaccurate and overly pessimistic," wrote Steven Murawski, Richard Methot and Galen Tromble to Science in June 2007.
Murawski is director of scientific programs and chief science advisor for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in line for the catch share funding. Methot and Tromble are also high ranking NMFS scientists.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.