GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 16, 2012

Seafood group backs off catch share spin

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

After much criticism from its members and external industry sources, a draft letter by a subdivision of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition seeking a congressional subsidy has been scrubbed of its optimistic perspective and rewritten.

The disputed language in the earlier draft said: "New England fishermen are seeing positive results from the nascent sector management system," and concluded that "revenues have increased."

But criticism came from day boat owner-operators who have become increasingly frustrated by a perceived tilt by the coalition toward better capitalized interests. The division became public last month when David Pierce, the commonwealth's representative on the New England Fishery Management Council accused offshore boats of poaching cod from the inshore grounds of Stellwagen Bank.

The draft was circulated by Elizabeth "Libby" Etrie, program director of the Northeast Sector Service Network. The network is a nonprofit corporation established by the leadership of the seafood coalition.

It provides operational services to 12 sectors, or fishing cooperatives, that share rights of first refusal in the trading of catch shares and other synergies built into the network system developed by the coalition, which was organized in Gloucester in 2002 to unify the commercial fleet for political and business leverage.

The refined draft of the letter dropped the disputed language and instead described the catch share system as posing a more dire challenge to the groundfishery.

"New England groundfish fishermen continue to face very serious challenges that are both internal and external to the sector management system," the redraft read. "At this time, revenues remain far from sufficient to cover the high cost of monitoring for many individual vessel operations and for the fishery as a whole."

Both drafts asked Congress ensure that the cost of at sea monitoring, which is required now for roughly one-third of trips, is subsidized for the fishing season beginning May 1, 2013.

The Times could not determine if a final draft of the letter had been sent or signed by fishermen. Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, referred questions to Etrie, who could not be reached.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, who made commodification and privatization of fisheries her No. 1 priority, has diverted money from other accounts to subsidize the monitoring program for the past two fishing years, and has pledged to do so again in the coming season.

The introduction of catch shares to New England's $70 million groundfishery has accelerated consolidation, as smaller, independent boats and businesses have folded and larger, more capitalized operations have bought up more quota and gained greater control of the catch.

That's the root of the complaints about the earlier draft from the day boat sector.

"I will never put my name on a letter filled with lies that benefit a handful of sellouts," Stonington, Conn., fisherman Dick Grachek wrote to Etrie late last month when the "positive" language draft letter was circulating.

He also objected to the claim about "increased" revenues.

Grachek is a member of one of the coalition sectors; small boat operators in each of the sectors dedicated to the inshore fleet echoed his complaint in meetings and emails.

"The vast majority of fishermen are not seeing positive results from Amendment 16 (which instituted the catch share and sector system of fishing)," said Wakefield, R.I. resident Tina Jackson, president of the American Alliance of Fishermen and their Families.

"Due to most receiving small allocations, they have been forced to stop fishing on any groundfish species, and or have been forced to sell those permits," she said. "While monies are made from the selling of said permits, it is not a long-term revenue source."

Echoing the argument of Gov. Deval Patrick and Massachusetts officials and social scientists, Jackson said any increase in revenues should be discounted as "illusory" without factoring in the price of fishing and leasing quota.

"Since the cost of buying certain species of fish are not being incorporated with any of the studies being published," she wrote in an email to the Times, "there is a grand illusion of high revenue. Crew shares are down by as much as two-thirds, which is not being talked about either, for many fear losing their jobs if they say something."

The letter seeking a congressional subsidy for at-sea monitoring followed a similar pattern — appearing in draft form from no identified original source — as a divisive letter last fall that was sent to Congress with signatures of 109 fishermen.

It purported to represent a consensus opinion in favor of the status quo — and arrived in congressional offices with a conflicting impact.

A working fisherman, Jackson said she believed the better capitalized interests in the groundfishery intended to undercut Gov. Deval Patrick's request filed last fall to have the federal government declare the catch share system an economic disaster qualifying the region for emergency financial assistance.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.