The deputy director of marine fisheries for Massachusetts said Thursday it is not the presence of big commercial trawlers working the shallows of Middle Bank for the season’s first wave of cod that worries him.
David Pierce said his concern is that, in the unregulated commodity trading system now in its third year, the big boats have the ability to acquire and accumulate an unlimited quantity of catch shares in Gulf of Maine Cod, and can monopolize landings in a stock whose vitality was found last year to be dramatically weaker than believed in an earlier, 2008 benchmark assessment.
The paucity of inshore cod was a pivotal element in the decision last month of the federal government to find the Northeast groundfishery had declined into economic failure.
It was Pierce who, in February introduced into the record of the New England Fishery Management Council the warning that the creation of an unregulated free market in the leasing of catch shares allocated to fishermen had opened the door for boats with big nets and holds to accumulate unlimited catch shares.
He focused his concern on the Gulf of Maine, where he said he feared the system, known as Amendment 16, would accelerate market consolidation and leave the smaller businesses watching helplessly as big boats clean up on Middle Bank and other inshore grounds, the only viable locations the smaller day boats can regularly work.
NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, through a vessel monitoring system, reported Wednesday in response to an inquiry from the Times, that “over the past 72 hours, there have been 8 vessels of 70 feet or larger” fishing in the vicinity of Middle Bank. The Times inquiry was triggered by multiple reports from tuna hook and line and gillnet fishermen on Middle Bank that big boats from Gloucester’s Sector 2 and Boston had been pursuing the season’s first wave of cod. NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said the agency would not make public the identities of the big boats working Middle Bank.
Pierce, joined by NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard and the Northeast Seafood Coalition all emphasized that big boat fishing on Middle Bank has always been legal and practiced by large-scale trip boats as well as dayboats.
But through 2009, trip limits were in place, with a daily cod limit was 800 pounds. Under Amendment 16, limits were removed on landings by boats working from the cooperatives or sectors.
“The only new thing is now they can catch as much as they want,” said Pierce.
Pierce said protection of the inshore cod stock might warrant a restoration of daily catch limits.
“Daily catch limits are worth considering to provide a disincentive” to pulse fishing, he said, adding that the problem was also “leasing between gear types and areas (boats from one region leasing quota to boats in other regions).”
In a Thursday statement to the Times, Bullard noted that the catch share system has opened Middle Bank to vessels of all sizes at all times.
“The ability for large vessels to fish inshore open areas was always there, well before the adoption of catch shares,” said Bullard. “Up until 2009, Middle Bank was included in seasonal rolling closures that have been in place many years. Now that the area is open to sector vessels in May, October, and November, it is open to all sized vessels.”
“As we confirmed (Thursday),” he added, “there are some large vessels currently fishing there.”
Joe Orlando of Gloucester, owner and captain of the 65-foot-long Padre Pio and president of Sector 2, the fixed gear sector of more than 50 vessels including six boats of 70 feet in length or more, declined comment Thursday.
But Stephen Welch, who fishes out of Scituate and is a member of Sector 10 — a group of mostly dayboat fishermen who depend on Middle Bank — noted that “the inshore grounds are very small.
“To protect fleet diversity and conserve the resource, some sort of input controls ... should be considered,” he said. “Fish allocations now are not geographically specific, allowing boats to accumulate large amounts of quota and use them to take the cod off Middle Bank when they show up. This resource is in delicate shape and was rebuilt at enormous sacrifice by day boat fishermen over many years.”
Welch said he hoped the government would consider re-establishing trip limits for inshore cod with no discards to reduce mortality and controlling the exchange of quota between boats whose histories of fishing — inshore or offshore — are different.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, whose Northeast Sector Network links up 13 of the region’s 17 sectors — including sectors 2 and 10 — issued a statement Thursday, stating that “low allocations coupled with reduced catch rates have contributed to various concerns relative to fishing activity on inshore areas within the Gulf of Maine.
“Diversity in the groundfish industry was a founding tenet of the Northeast Seafood Coalition and is a key operating principle today,” the coalition said. “Small, medium and large vessels utilizing all gear types each occupy key niches of the industry, and together keep the industry operational as a whole.”
The coalition is the region’s largest industry group, a nonprofit research and lobbying group whose wide reach has given it members with boats of all sizes and gear types as well as home ports. The coalition’s sector members are unified through a board of directors, and rights of first refusal when it comes to leasing and purchasing permits and quota.
The travails of Sector 10, made up of boats in small ports south of Boston along the shore of Massachusetts Bay, were cataloged by the state in its November filing to NOAA for a disaster declaration.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.