GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 2, 2013

NOAA study shows shrinking fleet

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The NOAA Fisheries Science Center has published an analysis of the 2011 Northeast groundfishery — the second year of catch share trading activity and the last year of optimism in a fishery that has descended into a recognized “disaster.”

And the report acknowledges the size of the fleet diminishing while the “economic performance” of the survivors “has generally improved.”

But two independent analysts, from the Northeast Seafood Coalition and the School of Marine Science and Technology at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, see evidence of discouraging trends in the Science Center report. The coalition cited volatility and a researcher for the so-called SMAST program said the report shows troubling signs of uneven distribution of revenues.

The annual report on the groundfishery found the size of the fleet in 2011 to be 9.1 percent smaller than 2009, the last year before the industry was re-engineered into a two-tiered system — fishing cooperatives buying, selling, leasing, and trading quota in catch shares, and a small common pool of boats operating independently under the old days-at-sea limits.

The new report shows that Gloucester suffered the most extreme loss in active vessels from 2009 to 2011 — a drop of 29 percent, from 98 to 70, including a loss of five boats from 2010 to 2011 after a wider initial collapse.

Among the 1,279 boats working in the catch share system in 2011 — 103 fewer than in 2010, and 152 fewer than in 2009 — the report found that overall gross revenues for the survivors in 2011 was $121.5 million, compared to $105 million in 2010, and compared to $110.6 million in 2009.

But those figures do not take into account, as the science center acknowledges, the cost of leasing quota -- the central change in the industry model base on catch share trading.

Virtually all the common pool boats were kept out of the commodity market by the lack of an allocation of catch shares, determined by the catch history of their permits.

The study’s authors emphasized that their net revenue estimates “do not account” for any of the costs associated with leasing quotas from vessel owners, or any of the revenues gained by the leasing of the quotas.

But the report does explain that the rights to about half the 62 million pounds of groundfish caught in 2011 were leased at a cost of $15.1 million, which means about 16 percent of revenues were offset by leasing costs, thus eroding the real net income for the fleet.

Factoring in the leasing costs, actual revenues for the groundfishing fleet declined from 2009’s $82.5 million to $79.4 million in 2011.

The Science Center emphasizes the positive in a press release, which led with the assertion that “Landings, gross revenues per vessel reached three-year highs for Northeast groundfish vessels during the fishing year that ended April 2012.”

The fishing year 2011, which ran from May 1, 2011, through April 30, 2012, was also the last time regulators and the industry were using an optimistic benchmark assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, allowing the boats which remained active to harvest liberal quantities of the most essential stock to the inshore fleet. By November, halfway through the 2011 fishing year, a new benchmark assessment by the Science Center reversed the positive findings about the recovery of Gulf of Maine cod and augured a chain reaction of contractions — limited to 22 percent in 2012 as an emergency, interim measure — leading to the present.

A special December meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council council could not decide whether to institute for 2013, draconian limits on cod and other species — enough to threaten the survival of the industry to stop overfishing in the model used by NOAA — or to follow the recommendations of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest industry group which founded 13 of the 17 sectors, and settle on a second interim emergency allocation that would avoid devastating cutbacks.

The report was critically analyzed at the request of the Times by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition and by Emily Keiley, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology.

“The recent performance report appears to partially mask the true economic hardships occurring in the groundfish fishery by including additional data such as landings and revenues generated from stocks not managed under the Multispecies Fishery,” the coalition said in a statement.

“One needs to carefully and methodically peel back layers of the report to understand the realities of how directed groundfish businesses are weathering regulatory storms continuously put before them; and in most cases, we still need additional information to better understand how business operations are functioning today.”

“The current environment — of fluctuating stock assessments, low (annual catch limits) for key groundfish stocks, an ever-changing ... lease market, daily variations in the market place, and increasing fixed-costs of running a vessel -- produces a perpetual struggle that will only be amplified in Fishing Year 2013,” the coalition statement continued.

“Most species that have historically produced high landings and profitability for fishing entities such as cod, witch flounder, yellowtail flounder, haddock and plaice are poised to have markedly reduced (catch limits) in May 2013. All segments of the groundfish fleet will be impacted by these reductions and we will unquestionably see increased consolidation in the coming year, as there is simply not enough fish on the table to sustain the entire industry.”

Keiley said she believes people are “frustrated” with the report because “they want to know two things:”

“Are people making money ... and how many people are working,” she said, “and those are two questions the report does not, and really cannot answer directly.”

She said she did not blame the Science Center because “they have presented everything they can.”

“This is a situation where data is insufficient to provide the analysis people want,” she said.

Keiley also pointed out that “revenue is not evenly distributed. The top 50 percent of vessels earned 90 percent of the total revenue, leaving the bottom 50 percent of vessels earning only 10 percent of the total revenue.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.