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February 23, 2011

Mystery petition clouds catch-share fight

A mysterious, anonymously-generated petition is urging New England groundfishermen to sign and help convince Congress that there is broad-based support for catch shares, the Obama administration's fisheries policy that has been stalled by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Copies of the document began circulating on Monday, less than 48 hours after a bipartisan House majority voted 259-159 to shut off funding for new catch share programs on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Although the amendment exempts New England's groundfishery from the cutoff, a number of fishermen now operating under catch share rules as members of fishing cooperatives — or "sectors," under the catch share system — see a threat to their businesses in the petition, according to Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, she condemned the petition as "extremely disingenuous" and said she believed the effort was meant to stampede fishermen to defend and protect federal subsidies for the heavy operating costs in managing the cooperatives and funding the more extensive observer program required of the boats.

"My blood is boiling," said Gloucester Capt. Joe Orlando of the fishing vessel Padre Pio, "I would not sign it."

No organization or individuals are identified on the petition as the addressers. Instead, the instigators described themselves only as "Commercial fishermen in the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery," the modern descendant of the nation's first commercial fishery, which developed immediately after the first settlements were established along the New England coasts in the 17th century.

The conversion of the groundfishery into a catch share system, assigning catching rights that can be bought, sold or traded among fishermen or to outside investors and corporations, has come under the NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in 2009. The regimen is nearing the end of its first annual cycle of operation, and is widely seen as destabilizing port economies, making of winners and losers in the selection of the criteria for dividing the total catch into shares.

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