By Richard Gaines
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco's staff Wednesday moved to correct the impression she left in Senate testimony Monday — that Gov. Deval Patrick's administration was delaying the delivery of research that might show the new catch shares management scheme to be an economic disaster for sectors in the groundfishery.
Such a finding is required for the Secretary of Commerce to order an emergency increase in catch limits.
Ultra-low catch limits, however, are widely cited as a cause of the hardship.
And preliminary data from the state — released before the start of Monday's Commerce Committee field hearing — has described one group of 32 South Shore fishermen that had lost 60 percent of landings, 23 percent of revenue in the new system and "nearly" half of them could not cover operating costs with gross revenues.
The "catch share system," according to testimony by the state director of marine fisheries, "has caused severe economic strain among the majority of fishermen, most of whom are small vessel owners."
At Monday's hearing, Lubchenco — in answer to a question from U.S. Sen. John Kerry - said "we made it abundantly clear many times, we are waiting on the governor."
Kerry had asked why NOAA continued to resist finding that the new regimen had proved an "economic disaster."
Amendment 16, which took effect in May 2010 and has involved a radical re-engineering of the economic system, organizes fishing cooperatives; these "sectors," as they are known, were allocated tradeable catch shares, as if part of a commodities market open to outside acquisition, investment and a consolidation of quota into the hands of large-scale businesses.
Midway through the first cycle of catch share/sector fishing, federal officials rejected a submission by Patrick administration and state university social scientists showing the consolidation of allocation, and what Kerry at the time described as an accelerating tilt in the unregulated market.
As Kerry reminded Lubchenco in their exchange at the start of the Senate Commerce Committee hearing at the State House, the mid-term report of the Massachusetts Fisheries Institute showed "80 percent of the revenues to 20 per cent of the boats."
On Wednesday, National Marine Fisheries chief Eric Schwaab released a statement to the Times clarifying Lubchenco's "waiting on the governor" comment to Kerry.
In it, Schwaab said NOAA was "working closely" and "meeting every other week" with Patrick administration and state university scientists on two follow-up projects to the mid-term report.
One of these is a case study of the impact of Amendment 16 on Sector 10 — a cooperative involving about 30 boats, mostly small day boats from feeder ports, Hull, Scituate, Plymouth to Cape Cod. The other is a "break-even" study that began with Sector 10, but is being broadened to involve the entire fleet.
The case study of Sector 10 is a joint project involving state Division of Marine Fisheries and the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology; the "break-even" study of how many boats were able to cover costs over the first year of catch shares, involves both organizations and NOAA, and is now undergoing peer review and fine tuning.
"We anxiously await the results (of the Sector 10 study)," Lubchenco said in her written testimony.
Yet, she needed only to have read the testimony of Paul Diodati, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, which was released in a package with Lubchenco's and that of the other four witnesses, to learn of a group of fishermen with limited resources spinning in a death spiral.
Combined with preliminary "break even" data from Sector 10, Diodati said the South Shore fishermen began the 2010 fishing year with allocations that were 20 percent below 2009, but actual landings "fell even lower," he reported, "60 percent below the previous year's level.
"It is our conclusion from our case study," Diodati said in his prepared testimony, "that in Sector 10, the catch share system caused significant consolidation of revenues among fewer vessels, and has caused severe economic strain among the majority of fishermen, most of whom are small vessel owners."
"Many fishermen are trying to survive by drawing on personal income or extended credit, shifting more fishing costs to crew or shrinking crew size, or postponing vessel maintenance," Diodati's testimony indicated.
Submitted in advance to the Senate Commerce Committee, all witnesses' testimony — that of Diodati, Lubchenco, Sector 10 fisherman Stephen Welch, Brian Rothschild and Steven Cadrin of UMass-Dartmouth's SMAST, and Rip Cunningham, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council — was released in a package before the start of the hearing at the State House.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3446, or at email@example.com.