, Gloucester, MA

June 9, 2009

NOAA chief steps up push for 'catch shares'

By Richard Gaines

National oceans and fishing administrator Jane Lubchenco yesterday promoted "catch shares," the commodification of wild stock into negotiable rights, as the key to healthy future fisheries.

The topic and system of fishery management is at the top of the working agenda — at different stages of implementation and for different reasons — in both New England and Alaska.

Those regions also happen to be the bases for the two candidates for Lubchenco's appointment to be chief steward of national fisheries, the position of National Marine Fisheries administrator.

In a keynote address to an elite gathering on Washington's Capitol hill, Lubchenco — the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — spoke of the need to afix economic values to the solution of environmental problems, in the context of a blurring of the line between public and private interests.

She spoke from prepared notes for about 20 minutes at the start of the weeklong Capitol Hill Ocean Week symposium, which is sponsored by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, a philanthropy whose leading members are both environmental and industrial powerhouses, including Big Oil.

Lubchenco made a rhetorical bow to the gathering of a who's who of stakeholders in the oceans' future, quipping about locking the doors at the Reserve Officers Association building on Capitol Hill until problems were solved.

She described "catch shares" as a new direction, and converting the New England fishery into a partial catch share system is on the agenda for final approval of the New England Fishery Management Council later this month.

Beyond the spotlight, however, other forces were at work in Washington that may shape the fishing future as well.

Jim Ruhle, president of the Commercial Fishermen of America, has been lobbying Congress to decide whether the approach taken by federal fishery regulators, regulating to the weakest stock at the expense of optimal production from others was what they intended in the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act.

Meanwhile, advocates for Brian Rothschild urged Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry to lobby Lubchenco to appoint Rothschild, an academic scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, as chief administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Rothschild and Arne Fuglvog, a former Alaska fisherman and now an aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are vying for the appointment to be the nation's fisheries' chief steward.

The New England council seems committed to an experimental, hybrid approach to catch shares in which more than half the fishing permits will be aggregated into voluntary cooperatives or "sectors" and given a group catch share, while those boats not choosing to work in a sector will be on their own in a residual effort control fishing world.

In Alaska, catch shares are not so new. There, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — which then included Fuglvog — divided the Alaska crab fishery in Alaska into "individual fishing quotas" three years ago.

The approach gave enormous wealth and value to fish processors and iced out the non-equity-owning crews of the crab boats. The fishing competition was winnowed down dramatically and hundreds were put out of work and without a cut of the pie for solace.

In a pivotal reconsideration, the North Pacific council just this week "rejected a narrowly crafted package of updates to the crab program in favor of a sweeping motion to re-examine the entire issue of processor quota, and determine if it should be extinguished either entirely, or just to a limited extent, with or without compensation," according to a report in the Anchorage Daily News by John Sackton, editor of the industry report,

The decision to reopen the earlier agreement on catch shares, which was approved unanimously, was sparked by two appointees to the council by Gov. Sarah Palin. Fuglvog, whose father was a successful processor, was on the council when it voted in the ITQ system.

Lubchenco's clear view of the future direction of the nation's fisheries policy underscores the sensitivity of the NMFS' appointment.

"The decision on the NMFS ... administrator is still pending," said Justin Kenny, communications director for Lubchenco.

Lubchenco directed the New England Council to institute the sector system with catch shares in her visit to the April meeting.

In her keynote address yesterday, Lubchenco made obtuse reference to the action agenda for the fisheries that she helped write before the election of President Obama, who named her to head NOAA.

In describing the importance of fixing the fisheries, she cited a World Bank report that "estimates the mismanaged fisheries cost the global economy $50 billion a year."

That citation came from the Oceans of Abundance report by a working group that included Lubchenco and recommended an accelerated national requirement for catch shares in all the regions.

Oceans of Abundance promoted catch shares as capable of preventing and even reversing "the collapse of the world's fisheries."

In her address yesterday, Lubchenco also gave glowing references to the "Natural Capital" project, another hybrid concept in which private interests and public interests intersect to guild policy.

The Natural Capital Project — a partnership among the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and Stanford University "will help key decision-makers such as government and industry incorporate the value of ... ecosystem services into their conservation and development decisions," according to the Nature Conservancy.

In her effort to stimulate the rapid adoption of catch shares in New England, Lubchenco confirmed she had forged an agreement with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, another philanthropy where public and private industrial interests merge on behalf of selected government projects.

Richard Gaines can be reached at