Ten-year catch histories, chosen by the New England Fishery Management Council as the determining factor in the region's tentative first distribution of an overall catch limit in individual catch shares next year, are rife with inaccuracies — with many permits enjoying unearned credit and others unfairly pinched, according to an informal survey by the Times.
True or false, the catch history reports distributed to fishermen this fall by the National Marine Fisheries Service will serve to decide how much of the total allowable catch in each species the permit-holder will be granted when the catch share system fused to harvesting cooperatives known as sectors goes into effect May 1.
Although the fisheries service has acknowledged that its reports, taken from dealer filings and processed fisheries statistics of its regional offices in Gloucester, are unreliable, it has decided to use them in the region's first allocation in the phase-in of catch shares but has agreed to make corrections in the data for the following fishing season that begins May 1, 2011.
Now, an Oct. 31 deadline for filing requests for corrections was extended to Dec. 31.
By the initial deadline, at least 58 permit-holders had filed for corrections, with many more still compiling the data.
Among the early filers was Dick Gracek of Mystic, Conn., whose boat is the Anne Kathryn.
His records and those of the fisheries service are eccentrically unmatched, and in that regard typical.
According to Gracek's records from dealer receipts for cod, dabs and yellowtail, the Gloucester-based regional NMFS offices, using dealer reports, credited him with slightly less catch than his own records, but in "black back (or winter) flounder," Gracek's records and NMFS seem wildly at odds.
According to Gracek's filing, which he shared with the Times, he caught 69,077 pounds of winter flounder during the 10-year period through 2006 that is being used to determine the allocation in the catch share/sector system coming to the groundfishery next year.
But according to NMFS's records, Gracek landed only 18,907 pounds of winter flounder, an amount equal to 27 percent of the catch for which he has records.
The way the catch share system works, Gracek will be given a catch share in winter flounder, and each of the other species, equivalent to the ratio of his catch according to NMFS divided by the total catch in each species.
Under-crediting means that the rest of the fleet will benefit; over-crediting, beyond allowing a permit-holder to an unfair cut in the whole, means that the rest of the fleet will have a smaller amount than equitable to divide.
For his part, Gracek whose boat fishes out of Point Judith, R.I., said he has no clue to explain the discrepancies.
"It's such a mess," he said. "We spent two weeks" organizing and auditing the records.
As far back as 2007, Patricia Kurkul, NMFS' regional administrator, admitted in a letter to Daniel Furlong, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, that the records were subject to error.
Speaking for himself, James Ruhle, president of the Commercial Fishermen of America, said the bad data meant the fishery is not ready for sectors.
"They have a flawed database. How can it be fair and equitable?" said Ruhle, who is based in North Carolina, but fishes in southern New England waters.
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, said the problem is the complexity of the data for a decade that includes changes in ownership. The coalition is the industry group that has organized 13 of the 17 sectors to accept catch share allocations to begin fishing under the catch limits mandated by the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006.
"There are people who have found issues, in some cases pretty severe — a handful," said Odell. "Dealer reporting, fishermen reporting, data entry and systems have changed.
"I don't know that one adds up to one all the time," she said. "The council voted 100 percent catch history.
"Less yellowtail, more cod ... and every appeal means all the numbers change," she said. "It's a moving target."
She declined to offer an opinion on whether the catch share system should be delayed while the catch histories are reconciled between agency and fisherman.
But she said delaying the catch share system for a year would not delay the imposition of the hard catch limits, or total allowable catches and accountability measures mandated by Magnuson.
The portion of the industry that has chosen to remain out of sectors will continue to fish under stricter effort controls, the final nature of which are to be decided at the New England Council's meeting next week in Newport, R.I.
A decision to delay catch shares and sectors would subject its members to the same constraints, Odell said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x1000, or via e-mail at email@example.com