By Richard Gaines
The policy director of the Northeast's largest fishing industry group predicts unsustainable operating costs that shift from government to industry next year will force a "complex and cumbersome" groundfish management system to "collapse under its own weight" and take the fleet with it.
An attorney, whose 2001 congressional letter reported the diverse law enforcement abuses of the industry which a federal inspector general and special judicial master recently documented, sees a disconnect between government and industry which leaves regulators "indifferent to the avoidable human tragedies they create."
A leading marine scientist and longtime participant in federal fisheries management doubts that the Obama administration's leadership at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is capable of self-reformation.
Amid the television lights at a Senate subcommittee hearing a week ago that explored how NOAA is "managing funds to protect the domestic fishing industry," the ugly history of a law enforcement system that trampled rights while squirrelling away the proceeds of defective cases for illicit uses dominated center stage in Boston's Faneiul Hall.
But at the end, when it was the turn of Vito Giacalone, from the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, attorney Stephen Ouellette and Professor Brian Rothschild of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to address the senators, Tom Carper of Delaware, the chairman of the subcommittee, and Scott Brown, the ranking Republican, the event was winding down, and Carper was insisting that the last witnesses abbreviate their oral comments.
But their written testimony, about 6,000 words combined, constitutes a complex warning that all is not well, or getting well with the federal government's management of the fisheries, especially the Atlantic groundfishery harvested by boats from North Carolina to Maine, notwithstanding reassurances to the panel by Eric Schwaab.
The administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Schwaab was designated to attend the hearing by his boss, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. She spurned the subcommittee's invitation without explanation, though Schwaab, in an interview videotaped afterward and posted on YouTube, said she had a scheduling conflict.
Giacalone, who predicted the fleet consolidation that has followed the first year of groundfishing under a commodification regimen based on a dramatically reduced catch limit that was allocated to cooperatives or sectors for trading catch shares, wrote to the subcommittee that NOAA's promise of relief for the cooperatives from government intrusion has been false.
"This latest round of top-down federal policy has produced a profound shift of management, data collection, data processing and enforcement burdens from NMFS to the fishing industry," said Giacalone's written testimony.
"The monitoring requirements of the new management system as adopted by the New England Fishery Management Council and approved by NOAA will shift the entire cost of monitoring the fishery onto the industry beginning next year. This will certainly cause this complex and cumbersome system to collapse under its own weight along with the industry now dependent on it," he wrote.
Giacalone said the new system's demands for monitoring of "virtually 100 percent" of trips by private third parties constitutes a shift from agency law enforcement to "third-party private sector enforcement," with the cost burden shifting to industry.
At the same time, Ouellette noted, as the number of boats continued to shrink, the number of government law enforcers and the size and complexity of the rules and regulations to be obeyed continued to expand, and simultaneously have been transformed from civil to criminal, thus raising the stakes.
"Simply put," he wrote, "there are too many enforcers chasing too few fishermen."
But Ouellette has also become expert in the less obvious field of regulatory conservation, portions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that direct NOAA to manage a balancing act — ensuring the sustainability of the resource while encouraging the maximum harvest consistent with conservation.
Ouellette, using his own research and that of others, including from Rothschild's UMass-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology, has documented what he considers to be clear evidence of a statutory failure here, an indefensible tilt toward the resource and away from the industry.
"NOAA's policies have resulted in an extended period of chronic underfishing," he wrote to the subcommittee. "I recently calculated losses in the Northeast multispecies (ground) fishery to be as much as $200 million a year."
He continued, "Economists apply a four-to-one multiplier to landed value as an indicator of overall economic activity," so it is reasonable to conclude that this misbalance in the application of Magnuson has cost the region about $2 billion a mean in economic activity.
This might help explain the shrinkage in the size of the Northeast groundfishing fleet — from 1,200 boats in 2004, to 500 boats today with a predicted halving again to 250 boats in the continuing consolidation.
Perhaps the most searing indictment of NOAA in Ouellette's written testimony — and something both Giacalone in a previous submission to a House subcommittee and Rothschild in his to Carper's subcommittee have also discussed — is NOAA's willingness to scrap the "small-business model for the fishery" for industrial scale in the transformation of the resources from commonly owned wealth to allocated commodity.
Giacalone long has warned that commodification and catch share trading will lead to absentee owners. "It's a conversion to share-cropping," Giacalone said in a June 30, 2009, Times story. "It sets up a Wall Street approach. Now you handicap the product in the marketplace because people are skimming and renting a public resource."
The catch share regimen sought and implemented by Lubchenco, who advocated for it while an officer of the Environmental Defense Fund, "casts off all the protections" in place to protect the small boat business model for the last 17 years, Ouellette wrote to the committee, and "allows virtually uncontrolled consolidation ..."
To be clear, Ouellette then quoted from a 2009 study by NOAA social scientist Julia Olson on the effects of consolidation. These include "employment loss, decreased income, decreased quality of life, changing relations of production, structural disadvantages to smaller vessels and firms, dependency and debt patronage, concentration of capital and market power ..."
Rothschild faulted NOAA for lack of interest in and data about the true effects of the new regimen, and also noted that catch shares have done nothing to free up for landings the tons of "undercaught" fish that remain in the sea.
"The fact is that the fisheries management system in the Northeast is widely viewed as broken," wrote the research scientist from New Bedford. He attributed the failings to a continuing "lack of accountability."
Skeptical that NOAA can fix itself, he proposed a National Fisheries Management Board, which would ensure that NOAA responds to the intent of Congress and operate in an analagous way to how the National Transportation Safety Board oversees the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rothschild also said he believes "an ad hoc commission" reporting to Congress is needed to develop a five-year plan to put NOAA fisheries management back on track.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.