By Richard Gaines
A letter from 109 New England groundfishermen advocating for the regulatory status quo set off a fierce, internecine war of words Friday between haves and have-nots in catch share fishing allocations, leaving the mayors of Gloucester and New Bedford surprised and dismayed as well.
Rhode Islander Tina Jackson, president of the American Alliance of Fishermen and Their Communities and a fierce opponent of catch share commodification, which typically brings with it the fleet consolidation New England is experiencing, said the drafters of the letter "have started a war."
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang called the signers "collaborators," fishermen willing to validate an inequitable system for a price.
Facilitated by officers of influential industry groups — including members of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition — the letter signed by the 109 fishermen, roughly a quarter of the current New England groundfishing fleet, included 15 from Cape Ann and asserted that elected officials, while responding to minority calls "amplified in the media," have put their businesses at risk with "a series of increasingly dangerous proposals."
These include accumulation caps, setting aside community quota, putting limits on trading catch shares across vessel and gear-type categories, according to leaders of the seafood coalition, which, since its 2002 founding, has grown to become the largest industry umbrella in New England.
Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said she was surprised by "many of the names on the letter supporting catch shares."
"The catch share system is collapsing," said Lang in a telephone interview. "What would motivate the fishermen to write the letter saying catch shares are fine with us?"
He said he guessed the answer was that the signers for the most part were happy with the allocations they got in June 2009 when the New England Fishery Management Council chose various past catch histories as the measure for groundfish catch shares.
At the closing of the council's three-day November meeting in Newport, R.I., Lang was reported by the Standard-Times of New Bedford to have observed after scanning the list of letter-signers that "I think they're doing pretty well. I think these are the people who have benefited from consolidation."
Lang also said "the most offensive thing about the letter was (the claim that) elected officials don't understand.
"Who is behind this letter?" Lang wanted to know.
That answer has proved elusive. Among the influences on it were the Northeast Seafood Coalition's executive director, Jackie Odell, and its policy director, Vito Giacalone.
But the finished draft was emailed to the office of Sen. John Kerry by Tom Dempsey, policy director of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Association, according to Kerry's office.
The seafood coalition and the Cape Cod group had long been rivals.
Indeed, the coalition was organized in 2002 to provide a counterweight to the growing regional influence of the Cape Cod group, which forged multiple alliances with the Pew Environment Group and Environmental Defense Fund, and had pioneered the "sector" system of fishing cooperatives that served as a prototype for the industry structure authorized to benefit from catch share allocations in Amendment 16 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, beginning May 2010.
"The concept of an industry fishermen's letter was brought to the attention of Vito Giacalone and me a few weeks ago," Odell wrote to members of the 12 sectors organized by the coalition. She provided the email to the Times.
"I sat at the council meeting this week," Jackson wrote to the Times, "and I noticed it was the same people huddled together, plotting and planning the destruction of others just to continue to line their own pockets off the backs of fishermen and their families."
After "dozens of meetings over the past few years including a vigil at City Hall, a protest at NOAA, and a rally in Washington, D.C.," Kirk said, "the shift in position of some fishermen is a potential game changer in terms of our advocacy on behalf of the industry."
Among the signers from Gloucester and Cape Ann were Al Cottone, Allyson Jordon, Joseph Orlando, Enzo Russo, Gus Sanfilippo, Paul Theriault and Louis Williams.
"Before jumping to conclusions," Kirk said, "I would like to hear from some Gloucester fishermen who refused to sign the letter."
The fishermen's letter was timed for delivery on the eve of the New England Fishery Management Council's November meeting, and seemed to achieve its goal. The council gave low priority to revisiting Amendment 16, which divvied up the allowable catch, rewarding fishermen who had invested in permits with extensive catch history and essentially penalizing those who had not anticipated the arrangement.
But the letter also went into circulation just as Gov. Deval Patrick was filing for an economic disaster declaration and $21 million in assistance. Along with the request to Commerce Secretary John Bryson went two new scientific studies of the groundfishery that showed hyper consolidation, job loss and concentration of control in a small number of the bigger fishing boat businesses since the launch of Amendment 16, which fishery-related lawmakers have been pressing to change on fishermen's behalf.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.