The Obama administration yesterday announced a full-speed-ahead commitment to converting the nation's fisheries to the "catch share" economic and regulatory system, even as its leading government advocate acknowledged the move leads to consolidation of the fishing industry.
The announcement, made via hour-long teleconference by Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, contained no surprises; Lubchenco has been a firm advocate of the push for catch shares,
"Global analyses show catch share fisheries tend to end up with somewhat fewer jobs, but much better jobs," said Lubchenco, who was responding to a question about the historical impact of installing catch shares.
The term "catch shares" covers a variety of approaches that essentially distribute shares for fishermen's rights to catch fish, primarily within voluntary cooperatives called sectors. The systems replace what had become the traditional American regulatory format in which the government regulated harvesting of fish stocks by limiting fishermen's effort — by limiting their days at sea and access to various fishing grounds.
There are 13 catch share systems and four in construction in U.S. fisheries, according to the draft catch share policy document.
One of those being prepared for catch shares is in New England, where a small section of the scallop fishery and a significant portion of the groundfishery are in transition.
NOAA was unable to say immediately how many fisheries exist in the United States overall, but for now, catch shares in effect and on the drawing board still represent a minority of the segments in the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
"Catch share programs have proven to be powerful tools to manage fisheries to sustainable levels and improve their economic importance," the drafr policy asserted.
In New England, resistance has been fierce. Largely in response to the feared consolidation of the New England fleet, a protest by more than 300 fishermen and women was staged in October outside the East Coast regional offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester.
Lubchenco has been a dedicated believer in catch shares for many years, and last year — before her nomination by then President-elect Obama to take stewardship of the oceans and atmosphere — she helped write a promotional paper urging the same general policy she introduced and discussed yesterday.
The "Oceans of Abundance" project was organized by the Environmental Defense Fund.
Yesterday, Environmental Defense praised the announcement, seeing "an historic new course for the nation's fish stocks, giving hope for the recovery of struggling fishing communities and depleted fish resources.
"NOAA is seeking to correct decades of failed management that has resulted in economically depressed, unsafe and unsustainable fisheries around the country," Environmental Defense said in a prepared statement.
In the NOAA release, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department serves as the federal umbrella for NOAA and its National Marine Fisheries Service, described a dramatically less dire state of the fisheries.
"We have made great progress in rebuilding many fisheries," Locke said, "but more than 20 percent of our fish stocks have not been rebuilt, and an even larger proportion of our fisheries are not meeting their economic potential."
Locke did not participate in the teleconference, in which Lubchenco expressed the view that "many (U.S.) fisheries are in a downward spiral." NOAA did not identify the failing fisheries.
Astrid Scholtz, vice president of the Oregon-based nonprofit Ecotrust, which seeks community-based solutions to economic and environmental problems, said there was reason to be skeptical that catch shares provide "fewer but better jobs."
"That's classic economic textbook thinking," Scholtz said. "In Alaska and British Columbia, that has not been borne out in practice.
"Fewer jobs, yes," she said, questioning whether the economic impact of the catch shares was positive.
The Pew Environment Group, which held its own package of two teleconferences weeks ago to urge the Obama administration to move cautiously with catch shares, yesterday lauded NOAA for Lubchenco's recognition that "catch shares were not a policy where one size fits all."
The draft policy now goes out for public comment. The comment period is open longer than required — four months — and ends April 10.
The draft was formed by a task force of government officials, headed by Monica Medina, who had been with the Pew Environment Group and previously served as chief counsel for NOAA in the Clinton administration.
While acknowledging that catch shares or individual transferable quota systems lead to consolidation as shares are bought and sold, Lubchenco also agreed that each of the eight regional fishery management councils, who legislate and answer to the administration, must be responsible to form catch share programs that prevent investor speculation and concentrations of quota — or shares — in a small number of hands.
"Although this is a national policy," she said, "our emphasis is on local consideration and design of catch shares that take into consideration commercial and recreational fishing interests."
She repeated an earlier statement that catch shares could be applied to a small number of recreational fisheries, but are not suitable for most.
Lubchenco also said the decision on converting to catch shares is that of the councils, but she urged them to consider the benefits.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.