By Richard Gaines
Citing new scientific studies showing that "catch shares have had a devastating impact on the commonwealth's groundfish fishery," Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday asked for a federal disaster declaration and $21 million in assistance.
"Federal regulations and management policies have caused a significant consolidation of the groundfish fleet, loss of jobs and reduced revenues — all of which have combined to create a fisheries resource disaster," the governor wrote.
The request, echoing one made a year ago that was rejected by previous Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, went to John E. Bryson, the new secretary, along with two scientific studies, as well as a reference to one from the NOAA Science Center that came out in October. Locke is now ambassador to China.
The governor's request and synthesis of the studies came wrapped with a reminder by U.S. Sen. John Kerry of a pledge he obtained from NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in October for an expedited review.
In a prepared statement released by the governor's office, Kerry said he believes the new research makes the case "incontrovertible" for the disaster declaration.
In an appearance at a State House hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee organized by Kerry last month, Lubchenco said she would put then-pending request of the governor through a quick study.
But the premise of the request — that the catch share approach she promoted while an officer at Environmental Defense Fund and made into the Obama administration's defining fisheries policy had ravaged the nation's first fishery — holds political dynamite.
EDF and its allies are engaged in a fierce struggle to protect the catch share approach against a bi-partisan coalition in Congress.
Earlier this year, opponents led by Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, put a soft bar on new programs for fiscal 2011 when no new rollouts were scheduled.
But now Jones and allies — including Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and three dozen colleagues from the Southeast, Gulf and Deep South states — are marshalling forces to convince the House Appropriations Committee to endorse a hard prohibition in fiscal 2012 when three fisheries in the Northeast and Southeast Atlantic are set for commodification.
On Tuesday, minutes after the governor's office announced his appeal to Bryson, NOAA released to the Times a copy of a one-page letter to the congressional delegation from 109 New England fishermen, more than two dozen from Gloucester, arguing that "a few voices calling for the overturn of the entire sector system have been amplified in the media."
Sectors are the cooperatives that groundfishermen organized to access the catch share trading system instituted in May 2010 as the groundfishery was re-engineered into a commodities market.
The letter went on to say that while "we understand that our elected officials are trying to respond to their constituents' concerns ... unfortunately, this has led to a series of increasingly dangerous proposals."
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, one of many groups and offices to receive a copy of the letter, said she was aware of its circulation and was certain that the fishermen's letter and the governor's request are "completely separate and have nothing to do with each other."
The letter, she said, was not related to the "catch shares debate."
Patrick's letter to Bryson noted that "NOAA's own data" a reference to the October socio-economic study by the NOAA Science Center at Woods Hole, "confirms ... the Massachusetts groundfish fleet is experiencing a significant and rapid consolidation, imperiling our historic and economically important commercial fishing industry."
The Science Center report added new methods and dimensions of analysis to a growing body of work.
Kerry honed in on evidence that 20 percent of the boats accounted for 80 percent of the revenues, up from 69 percent in 2009.
"NOAA's own data clearly shows what Massachusetts fishermen have been saying all along — they are struggling to survive under the catch share program," Sen. Scott Brown said in the same statement that contained the quotes of Kerry and members of the House delegation.
"As the economic data and analysis continues to indicate, far too many of our fishing families are struggling to sustain their livelihood because of the catch share program," added Tierney, whose 6th District includes Gloucester and all of Cape Ann.
The new disaster declaration request is built on new research — a "break-even" study conducted jointly by the School of Marine Science and Technology at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, NOAA Fisheries and the state Division of Marine Fisheries, and a case study by the Division of Marine Fisheries of Sector 10.
Sector 10 is one of the 17 business cooperatives organized by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition to minimize the hardships from the statutory limits on fish allocations granted during New England's first year operating under catch shares.
Made up primarily of day boat businesses, the sector — which includes fishermen from Hull to Cape Cod — has experienced "devastating" losses.
Thirty percent of the permit holders lost 80 percent of their revenues, and 52 percent lost at least half their revenues, according to the governor's summary of the report.
According to the October report from the NOAA Science Center, Gloucester also lost 21 of an estimated 96 boats during the 2010 fishing year.
"While Massachusetts fishing sectors are not homogeneous," Patrick said, "we believe the Sector 10 analysis is illustrative of similar losses across all sectors, particularly among small boat owners."
The break-even analysis was made more complex by findings that in 2010 a higher percentage of the boats had broken even than in 2009. But the findings, as expressed by NOAA fisheries scientists and those from UMass-Dartmouth and the state Division of Marine Fisheries in the Break-Even Analysis report, noted that even at the higher percentage of boats breaking even — 55 percent to 49 percent — the number of boats breaking even dropped due to the smaller number of boats fishing.
In 2009, 227 broke even, whereas last year 196 boats broke even.
All in all, the scientists reported 111 fewer vessels fished for groundfish in 2010 than in 2009.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at email@example.com.