, Gloucester, MA

March 11, 2010

Congressional panel wades into 'catch share' debate

By Patrick Anderson

A congressional subcommittee has called for the first public airing before federal lawmakers of the Obama administration's nationwide push for the kind of "catch share" fisheries management that's due for a May 1 launch in New England.

The hearing next Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, will feature at least two West Coast groups that have been critical of the push for catch shares, the Times has confirmed.

Representing the administration will be new National Marine Fisheries Service head Eric Schwaab.

The oversight hearing will be the third in the last two weeks on fisheries issues, and it comes as scrutiny of catch shares remains high in the wake of the "United We Fish" rally in Washington last month.

But it will be the first time that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's plan to advance catch shares systems — which essentially convert allocations of wild fish stocks into private assets and divide them among stakeholders — will be aired before Congress.

Unlike recent congressional reviews of fisheries issues — like last week's oversight hearing at Gloucester City Hall, which focused on NOAA enforcement wrongdoing as outlined in a Department of Commerce Inspector General's report — Tuesday's gathering will have a West Coast feel.

In addition to Schwaab, the Times has confirmed that Ed Backus of the Portland, Ore., environmental group Ecotrust will testify. Among environmental groups, Ecotrust has been one of the most skeptical voices on the nationwide move for catch shares.

Yesterday, Backus said he planned to tell lawmakers that Congress should establish new standards and safeguards — such as community permit banking — to prevent catch shares from resulting in wholesale consolidation of fisheries and loss of fishing communities.

Backus called the approval of catch share systems through regional councils "politically capricious for implementing market design."

As fishermen in Gloucester and around New England brace for a switch in May to a sector system based on catch share principals, anxiety in the Pacific Northwest is rising as groundfish fisheries there are moving toward a catch share system next year.

Concerns about that program among Oregon fishermen will bring Leesa Cobb of the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, a cooperative in southwest Oregon, to testify at the Catch Share hearing.

"The economic analysis shows ports that would be winners and losers and the main thing would be the ability to land fish." Cobb said by phone yesterday. "Possibly there could be a catch share program that works, but I couldn't describe it for you."

The final witness list for the hearing has not been set, but so far no other fishing industry witnesses have been identified.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at