By Richard Gaines
The New England Fishery Management Council has given relatively low priority to the divisive issue of placing accumulation limits and other controls to modify the catch share system installed in May 2010 for New England groundfishermen.
The decision to drop the problem to the bottom of the council's to-do list was reported to the Times by advocates and opponents of the status quo who attended the council's three-day November meeting that ended Thursday.
But the sides agreed the the delay addressing the conflict — between better served and less well-served participants in the original allocations — was a tactical win for the signers of a "go slow" letter that was addressed to the Massachusetts congressional delegation and dated Monday — the eve of the start of the council meeting in Newport, R.I.
Circulated with the help of a number of dominant industry groups, including the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, 109 fishermen, more than a dozen of them from Cape Ann, appealed for "management stability."
"A few voices calling for the overturn of the entire sector system have been amplified in the media, and we understand that our elected officials are trying to respond to their constituents' concerns," the signers wrote. "Unfortunately, this has led to a series of increasingly dangerous proposals that truly put the future of our businesses and fisheries at risk."
Letter-signing fishermen interviewed by the Times said they feared a political push to reallocate the fishery, impose restrictions on the leasing of quota between fishermen using different gear types and boat sizes, or even to unwind Amendment 16 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
"This is not a letter by the 'winners,'" said seafood coalition executive director Jackie Odell in an email to the Times. "Many of these fishermen have been harmed considerably by the allocation. But they are tired of the process jerking them around, creating more uncertainty with their businesses."
The stew of catch shares, sectors and hard catch limits was approved in June 2009 after newly installed NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco came to office. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration oversees the nation's fisheries.
The management council at that time raced through a debate over how to allocate the quota, or fishermen's catch shares. It adopted a format that shaved from the mass of commercial fishermen some of the staple Gulf of Maine cod, which was redistributed to the recreational sector and a small cohort of fishermen organized as the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.
The choice of catch histories favored fishermen who had acquired the right permits in planning for the fateful decision, which was made by a combination of active fishermen and a representative of Environmental Defense Fund, appointed by the U.S. Commerce Secretary, and representatives of fishing state governments.
Many of the letter-signers, though far from all of them, were among the successful planners.
The letter also surfaced the same day as a report Tuesday by Gov. Deval Patrick to Commerce Secretary John Byson.
"Citing two newly completed socio-economic reports showing that catch shares have had a devastating impact on the commonwealth's groundfishery," Patrick said "federal regulations and management policies have caused significant consolidation of the groundfish fleet, loss of jobs and reduced revenues," amounting to a "fisheries resource disaster."
U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and William Keating wrote to Bryson on Thursday, urging his approval of the disaster declaration.
A driver in the request for a disaster declaration was the plight of Sector 10, a group of 32 mostly day boat fishermen in small ports from Hull south to Cape Cod.
A case study of Sector 10, which was cited by the governor, showed that 30 percent of members lost 80 percent of revenues in the first year of Amendment 16 and more than half lost half their revenues.
Steve Welch, a leader of Sector 10, was at the council meeting, but said he was denied the chance to speak by the council Chairman Rip Cunningham before it completed its prioritizing for 2012.
"There are lot more of us, losers, than (there are) winners," said Welch. "We've got to be able to convince them it's worth their while to go to the scoping hearings (for the potential amendment adding constraints to Amendment 16)."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.