BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — Conversion of the commonly held wealth of the seas into a tradeable, private commodity and then dividing the whole into "catch shares" was soft-sold with less than full disclosure to the management of New England's fisheries this week.
"We are a neutral convener, we take no position on catch shares," proclaimed Amy Schick Kenney, the co-leader of the Fisheries Leadership & Sustainability Forum, at the start of a two-day workshop on catch shares organized by the New England Fishery Management Council at the Mount Washington Hotel Resort.
But if the forum itself — along with Kenney and its co-facilitators — professed neutrality, the moving force behind the forum and a co-sponsor was the Environmental Defense Fund, the global giant ENGO or environmental non-government organization which has been the signature champion of catch shares for many years.
The forum is a joint operation, merging resources of Duke University's Nicholas Institute of the Environment and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Both institutes have absorbed extensive funding and exhibit ties via officers to the Pew Environment Group and the EDF. The Woods Institute is also the home for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which was created in 1998 by Jane Lubchenco, then a rising academic scientist, with monies she received as a Pew fellow.
Now the nation's administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Lubchenco came to office last spring with catch shares at the top of her national agenda for fisheries, and advised the New England council in her initial meeting with its members to approve a catch share program without delay.
The council complied in June. At the workshop — held far from the harbors, fleets and fishing communities — council member and New Hampshire commercial fisherman David Goethel wondered at the race to say yes.
"Ready, fire, aim, this is too late," he noted. "We didn't have time to think this through."
The New England council's rushed approval in June of a partial conversion — covering the voluntary cooperatives or sectors but not the fishermen who opted to fish independently in the common pool — was ragged.
At its next meeting, the council voted to rejigger the allocation for the common poolers to allow shifting more allocation to the preferred catch share side.
The consensus action, however, meant the managers of the region's base fishery had committed to a catch share future.
"We're not just a little bit pregnant," noted the council's Rip Cunningham, who represents recreational interests. They are not yet involved in any U.S. catch share system, but are anxious about the future.
The public could not be barred from the public meeting, but the council made clear the study was meant primarily for its members and staffers.
A small number of uninvited guests who made the trek to the White Mountains were allowed to speak — but only if they promised not to argue or debate. One uninvited participant — Food and Water Watch, an NGO or non-government organization critical of catch shares — had its written material removed on Tuesday from the ad hoc news stand at the entrance to the space given over to the conference by the resort; after protest, it was returned the next day.
The presentations — case histories and Q-and-As in which "experts" in catch shares — or their cousin, "Individual Transferrable Quotas," from the West Coast, British Columbia, Alaska and New Zealand — gave the formulators and managers of the New England Fishery a vivid second-hand picture of the "transformational" power of catch shares or ITQs, as Monica Medina, the keynote speaker, described them Wednesday.
Medina spoke as an emissary of Lubchenco, who came into office nominated by President Obama from screening done by a transition team that featured Medina, who at the time was counsel for the Pew Environment Group.
The Pew organization has specialized in commissioning scientific studies that build upon each other's highly disputed findings to proclaim the oceans to be under assault by human predation, requiring radical medicine — privatization.
One such study in purple prose provided to participants of the workshop began with the assertion "that the destruction of the world's major fisheries has been widely documented," and went on to assert as fact that "bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod and swordfish. ... are expected to be extinct in decades."
As a star in Pew's global philanthropic network and a high official in EDF, Lubchenco personified their mutual affinity for catch shares. An EDF vice president, David Festa, also pitched them to a conference of hedge-fund managers earlier this year as a lucrative investment instrument.
Medina's choice of the word "transformational" was apt. Every system converted from traditional fishing rules to catch shares have showed the same pattern — intense consolidation of the fleet, at least to half its previous size, with equity concentrated in a far smaller set of hands but with incomes to the surviving few in the fishery stabilized and multiplied.
The natural fisheries themselves also were said to improve. More selective and rational fishing, with reduced by catch and smoother levels of supply were described, as resulting from the removal of the impetus for fishermen, as quota holders, to no long race around in unorganized "derbies," liberated to create supply strategically to match demand.
Wes Erikson, a fourth-generation Alaska fisherman, described catch shares as a sanitizing astringent, washing bad apples, drunks and cheaters out of the system, leaving more fish and more money for the making by the hardworking.
"No longer do I have to sober somebody up or bail them out (to get a crew together)," Erikson told the plenary session on Wednesday.
He and all expert witnesses were flown in and provided for by the co-sponsors at the resort.
Neither Erikson nor the forum's written material indicated that Erikson is a veteran of the catch share "show-and-tell" circuit, lending his voice to the agendas of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pew Environment Group in various meetings.
Another active proselytizer for EDF and catch shares was Bruce Turris. His forum thumbnail bio describes him as an economist, Canadian fisheries official and consultant of many years. EDF was not cited. EDF last year took groups of New Englanders to British Columbia to learn about catch shares, and in June just before the council's pivotal vote, EDF organized a traveling road show through the region, with Turris part of the traveling team.
EDF has made the catch share campaign a test of its political clout.
Timed for the transition between presidencies, EDF last fall released "an action agenda for America's vital fishing future," a footnoted political policy paper, "Oceans of Abundance."
Among the working group that created the paper, which argued for a universal effort to apply catch shares to the majority of the fisheries that don't have them, were Christopher Costello and Steve Gaines, who co-authored one of Pew and EDF's favorite research papers, "Can catch shares prevent fisheries collapse?"
Also listed as members of the working group were Lubchenco and EDF Chairman N.J. Nicholas Jr.; Lubchenco was Gaines' thesis advisor at Oregon State University.
Richard Gaines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org