GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 20, 2010

Push for catch share delay picks up steam

By Richard Gaines

A recently organized New England anti-catch share petition intended for the U.S. Secretary of Commerce is picking up steam with support from a crewmen's association in Alaska that's lived through catch shares' consolidation and job loss and has reached across the country to form an alliance against the regulatory scheme..

Without intervention by Congress, which is considered unlikely, or by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, a catch share regulatory program for part of the New England groundfishery goes into effect May 1.

The Crewman's Association has about 1,000 members with hundreds still active, according Executive Director Shawn Dochtermann.

The association filed a request with Locke on April 10 for a "two- to three-year moratorium on catch shares due to their negative consequences and irreversible effects due to past privatization programs in Alaska that have harmed many coastal communities."

April 10 was also the closing date for public comments on the New England catch share policy proposal by the Obama administration, which was ostensibly written by the Environmental Defense Fund and carried into government by Jane Lubchenco when the former EDF vice chairwoman was named to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Rhode Island's Tina Jackson, president of The American Alliance of Fishermen and their Communities, began the New England petition drive against catch shares six days ago.

Yesterday, she said it was "incredibly gracious" of Dochtermann to back the effort in New England after his group was left to fight its battles alone.

"Well, yeah," said Dochtermann, who was contacted by phone as he was about to go fishing from Kodiak, Alaska.

In an e-mail seeking signatures, Meghan Lapp, a researcher for the alliance, said the petition could have an effect because "Congress is not happy about NOAA's request for $54 million to implement catch share programs across the nation, and neither are congressional members — Republicans and Democrats alike — sold on the catch share ideas ...

"This has become evident through statements made recently at congressional hearings," Lapp wrote. The petition had drawn 112 signatures as of yesterday.

She added that Eric Schwaab, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, "has made statements indicating the industry supports catch shares and wants them implemented as soon as possible — the exact opposite of the majority of industry voices."

The same House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans that last month heard Schwaab make the case for catch shares and critics cite the harm that the system also can do in hyperconsolidating ownership and job loss holds another hearing, this one focused on East Coast fisheries, Thursday at 10 a.m.

The hearing is available via Web cast. Brian Rothschild, the emeritus dean of the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who in February urged a one-year moratorium in the impending partial catch share program for the New England groundfishery, will be one of the speakers.

The speakers' list was not available yesterday.

The Crewman's Association petition asserted the hope its experience with catch shares since 2005 would help "protect all present U.S. fishermen from the job losses, consolidation ... localized depletion of stocks and the unfair and inequitable compensations for the ... boots-on-deck fishermen, due to excessive quota shares being allocated to non-participants of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands crab fisheries."

Dochtermann's group also said catch shares do not protect fish stocks nor habitat.

"All catch shares did in Alaska is allocate to a small group of investors," who have "used those rights to leverage more quotas, which has disadvantaged the actual fishermen that participate on a vessel or new entrant vessel owners," the petition said.

The petition went on to note the near impossibility of new entrants to the industry, and the growing influence of absentee owners, who are "siphoning 40-80 percent of the gross revenues from the crab settlements while owning only a piece of paper."

Dochtermann's petition added that crewmen on the crab boats "have been coerced" not to speak out against the "crab rationalization" program, the term in Alaska used for the catch sharing of the crab industry.

He said that problem required the involvement of the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce, whose office has uncovered a national problem in miscarriages of justice against commercial fishermen by law enforcement, particularly out of Gloucester and the Northeast.

The catch share system that begins May 1 in the New England groundfishery, using radically reduced allocations, is expected to drive at least 50 percent of the boats out of business, according to months of comments by fishing industry analysts.

Petitions for increased allocation from U.S. Sen. John Kerry and Congressmen Barney Frank, John Tierney and William Delahunt have not been answered publicly by NOAA officials.

In Alaska — and in most catch share fisheries worldwide — the allocation of the fishery and division of the allocation into shares, or catching rights, that can be bought, sold and traded has brought about radical consolidation.

Lubchenco has predicted short-term job loss, and has advocated removing a "sizeable fraction of the boats" from the New England groundfishery.

There is debate whether catch shares have any value as a conservation tool. Lubchenco and EDF insist that catch shares induce conservation, but fishing groups, including Dochtermann's, argue the impact of catch shares is strictly in the redistribution of income, and that any conservation must come from regulating the size of the catch.

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