On the heels of a "sobering" report by NOAA scientists documenting accelerating consolidation in the groundfishery in the first year operating in sectors with catch shares, the regional management council Wednesday begins discussing fleet diversity and limiting the accumulation of quota by the biggest players.
In nine of 14 groundfish stocks, 25 fishermen or corporations have come to control at least 50 percent of the quota, according to a draft document by staff for the members of the New England Fishery Management Council.
The council debate Wednesday will be followed by "a scoping period" to provide the public with an opportunity to identify issues and alternatives to be studied before any action, which is projected in 2014.
The staff report reinforced the study by the five social scientists at NOAA's science center at Woods Hole that found 20 percent of the vessels accounted for 80 percent of the revenues. That report came out last Wednesday.
"This report shines a sobering light on the economic health of Massachusetts groundfishermen," said Mary Griffin, the state's commissioner of fish and game. "The report demonstrates that the concentration of the top 50 percent of revenue in a minority of vessels threatens the economic future and way of life for smaller scale fishermen."
The council, meeting in Danvers this week, signaled last March its intention to take up the problems arising from launching the catch share program in a mixed stock groundfishery without any controls on trading or accumulating stock.
The report of the science center, released last week, was the first study of the impact of the radical changes to the fishery management system to look at a full year of data. The five authors made the consolidation of the fleet a point of emphasis.
They wrote that fewer vessels were accounting for more gross revenues while the size of the fleet was shrinking.
This engineered economic inequality has been suspected and reported anecdotally.
It will be a topic of interest next Monday, when Sen. John Kerry — sitting together with Sen. Scott Brown and Reps. John Tierney, Barney Frank and William Keating — chairs a Senate Commerce Committee hearing at the State House that will feature NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco as a witness.
As early as last March, before the first year of catch share fishing even ended, Kerry and his colleagues were urging then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to declare the policy "a disaster" and authorize "emergency economic assistance" to the fleet.
The request, formally made by Gov. Deval Patrick together with Tierney and Frank, was rejected.
The NOAA science center report by Andrew Kitts, Evan Bing-Sawyer, Matthew McPherson, Julia Olson and John Walden found revenue consolidating rapidly among groundfishing boats.
In 2009, the year before catch shares were introduced, 20 vessels accounted for 25 percent of the revenue, but in 2010, with the industry working with allocations and trading, only 12 vessels accounted for 25 percent of the revenue in groundfish.
The consolidation was accompanied by fleet loss as well. The working fleet in Gloucester dropped by 21 vessels last year and now numbers just 75.
Similar losses in boats and jobs were documented from Maine to Montauk, N.Y., while crew positions dropped by 6.8 percent from 2,442 to 2,277.
The public may attend the council meeting this week at the Crowne Plaza in Danvers (the former Sheraton Ferncroft) and can listen to the meeting via a webcast.
Information about linking to the event can be found at the New England Regional Fishery Mangement Council website.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.