A commercial fisherman and federal official predicted yesterday that the New England fishing industry has a dim future, facing radical consolidation and the loss of "a way of life" that has existed for centuries without a "massive intervention at the congressional level."
In setting polices to implement mandates for catch limits in the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act three years ago, the New England Fishery Management Council rushed through a series of pivotal decisions, including "an allocation scheme and management regimes," David Goethel told a congressional subcommittee in Washington, D.C. The council serves as a federal legislative body in setting fishing policies.
The use of the "scheme and ... regimes" phrase was a clear allusion to the decision this summer, under a directive by the top federal fishery administrator, Jane Lubchenco, to rapidly phase-in "catch shares" — a top-priority national policy of privatizing the catchable common resources of the sea via the creation of a commodities market.
Only a congressional commitment to a buyout of boats and creation of a permit bank for surviving small fishing boat businesses will "stop the speculation of venture capitalists and private permit banks, which have already sprung up," he said.
Goethel was one of nine members of the fishing industry from various sectors and parts of the country to give testify yesterday at an oversight hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.
Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., is the only New Englander on the subcommittee. But many of its members, notably Congressman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., have taken leadership roles in Magnuson-related fisheries issues.
Pallone has led an effort backed by Massachusetts and Rhode Island colleagues to modify Magnuson-Stevens, adding flexibility to hard deadlines for restoration of stocks, an action that has been met with a national petition by the Pew Environment Group aimed at keeping Magnuson as written.
Yesterday's Capitol Hill hearing came as fishing interests from as far away as Maryland and Maine were mobilizing for a massive fishermen's protest meeting here in Gloucester Friday morning, outside the regional offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Fisheries Service.
Goethel also noted the frustration of the fleet facing an allocation based on catch histories that NMFS has acknowledged are faulty, and beyond immediate correction.
NMFS has set midnight Saturday — a day after the demonstration — as the deadline for submissions by fishermen to prove what the correct catch histories were between 1996 and 2006, the years voted for most of the fishery. But NMFS said the corrected histories would be applied to catch shares for 2011, not for the 2010 fishing year.
Beneficial exceptions have been voted for groups of cooperative organized fishermen on Cape Cod, who are receiving subsidies from the Pew Environment Group, and for the recreational fishery.
After listening to the Webcast of the hearing, Gloucester protest organizer Amanda Odlin, who lives in Maine and co-owns two trawlers based in Boston, said Goethel's critique could serve as the bill of grievances for the rally.
Many fishermen in an industry that has been reduced in number of boats by approximately one half in the past decade are worried that the catch share transition will bring about even more draconian consolidations.
While focusing primarily on the groundfishery, which is being converted to the catch share regulatory format, he also warned that an impending cutback in the allowable catch of herring would be devastating to the lobster fishery by removing half the bait needed by the regional lobster fishery.
Goethel said the "largest single systemic problem" from the council's actions in recent months was the absence of any meaningful analyses of the "economic and social costs and benefits" from the decisions.
"For example, in groundfish," said Goethel, "we (the council) voted an allocation scheme and management regimes in June and annual catch limits in September, yet no fisherman has any idea what these mean in terms of their catch and business viability in 2010" when the catch share system is applied to the portion of the industry that chooses to work in voluntary fishing cooperatives known as sectors.
Those who don't will continue to be managed by effort controls, such as limits on fishermen's days at sea and their access to specific fishing grounds.
"The rapid decision-making process" was forced on the council by "arbitrary timelines" in Magnuson-Stevens, Goethel said.
He predicted that when allocations are finally announced, "the outcry will be loud and long," and reiterated his complaint that the council voted an allocation bias toward recreational fishermen.
When the losses of commercial fishermen are added to those allocations removed to account for scientific and management uncertainty, Goethel said most commercial fishermen will have so little allocation that their businesses will be rendered non-viable.
Radical consolidation of fleets, concentrating fishing capacity and equity has followed virtually everywhere in the small sampling globally where ocean resources have been privatized into catch shares, or Individual Tradeable Quotas (ITQs).
This point was made clear during a two-day catch share workshop last week in Bretton Woods, N.H., co-sponsored by the New England Council and a private universities-based organization linked directly to the Environmental Defense Fund, the major non-government organization that is the most aggressive promoter of catch shares.
Lubchenco was a vice chairman of EDF before her appointment by President Obama to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which manages the fisheries.
At the Bretton Woods conference last week, experts from the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada told of speculation in catch shares that drove the price to as high as eight times ex-vessel values of the catch. And last spring, an Environmental Defense Fund vice president counseled investors to buy catch shares early for profits as great as 400 percent.
Goethel said yesterday he expected the cost of monitoring after the initial year of federal subsidies will "probably exceed the value of the catch."
"This is clearly an issue and NMFS must deal with soon or risk the complete removal of commercial fishing and its attendant costs to tourism and the restaurant trade from most of the small boat fishing communities throughout New England," he added.
Goethel said the "removal of fishing fleets from communities raises National Standard 8 issues which have not been analyzed or addressed." In Magnuson, National Standard 8 requires management of the fisheries to "minimize ... to the extent possible ... adverse economic impacts on fishing communities."
"Absent massive intervention at a congressional level, most commercial fisheries in New England will contract to a handful of large boats in large ports and a way of life that has existed in New Hampshire for over 400 years will be lost," Goethel said. "Most of the fishermen I know wish to continue fishing as independent small boat owner/operators not as share croppers."
Similar worries have been expressed repeatedly by Vito Giacalone.
An industry innovator and the organizer of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, Giacalone, in a separate venture, organized a community permit bank that used mitigation funding from liquified natural gas interests to acquire and lease out fishing days that have kept small boats working despite increasingly draconian days-at-sea cutbacks.
Giacalone said yesterday the coalition has been opposed to species specific history allocations because "they set up the possibility of for a dangerous" market trading system.
"It is prone to big capital investment" and equity extraction from the market, as "phoney money (or profits) are skimmed off the top," he said.
Giacalone called the catch share "burden" on the resource "a legal and scientific perfect storm."
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com