NOAA’s regional administrator, joined by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pew Environment Group, the North Atlantic Marine Alliance and Food & Water Watch, is supporting a belated effort by the federal government to limit the accumulation of catch shares and thus provide safeguards to smaller independent boats in the Northeast groundfishery, now consolidating in response to catch restrictions that promise only to tighten in the foreseeable future.
Many fishermen share the view of John Bullard, NOAA’s new regional administrator, and the non-government organizations about the need for NOAA’s regional council — composed of industry appointees and state marine fishery officials — to take up the problem of excess quota accumulation and consolidation of the fleet next year.
The New England Fishery Management Council will set its priority list at its November meeting, which will also struggle with setting draconian catch limits for the groundfishing fleet beginning May 2013. But far from unanimous is the consensus backing the council’s writing accumulation controls and limits into an addendum to Amendment 16, the landmark and legally disputed framework for the groundfishery that includes voluntary fishing cooperatives using and trading in catch shares.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest industry group in the region, has disputed the need for the government’s intervention in the free enterprise authorized by Amendment 16, which marked the first time NOAA —approving a fishery management plan completed by the council in 2009 and launched in May 2010 — essentially adopted the catch share management format.
One expressed concern about a future addendum to Amendment 16 (known as Amendment 18, but for now, a document in name only) by the coalition is government intervention that would unduly limit or prevent the free trading in catch shares between inshore and off shore boats and between boats of different gear types — an unfettered exchange that seemed intended by the council that wrote Amendment 16, and is the lifeblood of the fleet, according to coalition testimony last winter during a scoping session in Gloucester by a team representing the council.
“NSC (the coalition) believes that legitimate goals concerning diversity, excessive shares and consolidation should and will be most effectively addressed by the individual sectors rather than through a council regulatory process,” the coalition said in its written submission to NOAA. The coalition also said it worried that Amendment 18 might nudge the regimen across the border making it a bona fide limited-access program that, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, would be subject to referendum approval by the working fishermen.
Yet Bullard, who heads NOAA’s Gloucester-based regional headquarters that regulates the industry from Maine to the Carolinas, said “NOAA’s position is that provision should be made to prevent excessive (ownership of catch) shares,” adding that was a consensus message to him during a series of listening sessions he held throughout the region before and after he took office last July.
“Consolidation was happening before catch shares went in, and it is the council that needs to tackle the problem,” he said. “It’s complicated, but it needs to be tackled in open debate, and not just left to market forces,” he added in a telephone interview Tuesday.
EDF, as much as any other non-government organization, was a driving factor in the creation of Amendment 16 and helped promote Jane Lubchenco as President Obama’s choice to head NOAA, an appointment that was followed by Lubchenco’s commitment to make catch shares the nation’s choice for modernizing fisheries.
But EDF urged NOAA in January 2010 to partially disapprove Amendment 16 as drafted and submitted by the New England council “to the extent that it fails to prevent excessive quota accumulation.” Instead, EDF urged the federal government to “require the council to conduct the analyses necessary to determine the appropriate accumulation caps (sector and/or individual) – or other polices to prevent over-accumulation of quota as soon as practicable.”
“We believe that, at this point, it would be too disruptive to implement an accumulation cap on all groundfish species for the 2010 fishing season,” EDF indicated at the time. “NMFS must act quickly and effectively, however, to prevent further over-accumulation of quota and to analyze and implement polices to be in place for fishing season 2011.”
“EDF is a longtime supporter of accumulation limits and has advocated for them in the New England groundfish fishery since 2009,” Johanna Thomas, regional director of EDF’s Oceans Program, told the Times Tuesday. “Accumulation limits offer important protections to smaller operators, help avoid excessive consolidation, and prevent individuals and companies from exerting excessive control over fish stock quotas.”
NOAA’s claim that Amendment 16, catch share fishing and trading by members of sectors, is not a limited access program and thus required no referendum has been challenged in federal court by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford and a wide range of fishing interests, but not by the Seafood Coalition or any of its subsidiaries. Food & Water Watch was denied the right to enter the case in support of the plaintiffs, who argued before the U.S. First Circuit of Appeals in Boston last month.
The plaintiffs argued that the catch share system created by NOAA should have included accumulation limits and provisions to protect fleet diversity.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.