By Richard Gaines
With socio-economic studies suggesting that control of New England's fishery is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the federal government has announced plans to look into and perhaps set limits on groundfish quota accumulations that would protect the fleet's diversity among large and smaller-scale businesses.
The New England Fishery Management Council, the regional policy-making arm of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, announced a series of 10 "scoping" hearings to be held across the region in January as the first step of the plan.
The Gloucester hearing is scheduled for Jan. 30, at the state Division of Marine Fisheries' Annisquam River Station, from 6 to 8 p.m.
The hearings are being designed "to gather information and ask for suggestions about the range of issues that should be addressed," possibly through modifications to Amendment 16. That's the regulatory framework for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's catch share program, which has brought a radical reorganization of the groundfishery since it was put in place in May 2010.
Any initiative to cap the amount of quota a business or cooperative can control is highly controversial; many fishermen and government officials argue that the market should be allowed to work its wisdom in reshaping the groundfishing industry, now that it has become subject to market forces.
Under pressure to institute catch shares from then newly-confirmed NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, a former officer with Environmental Defense Fund, the regional management council raced through final votes on the new system in 2009, including a tool that determined the allocation of shares based on prior landings. By virtually all counts, the system has created a relative handful of winners, who were allocated large amounts or catch, and many losers, who found themselves with low allocations and have faced increasing challenges to stay in the business.
"Because of concerns related to maintaining the diverse makeup of the groundfish fleet in the Northeast, as well as an interest in preserving active and thriving fishing ports," the council said in a prepared statement, "the New England Fishery Management Council is considering several measures that will impose limits on the amount of fish allocations that individuals may control."
The council noted a number of options under consideration: instituting individual or sector accumulation caps, setting usage caps, creating separate accumulation limits separately for inshore and offshore boats — of taking no action and sticking with the status quo.
At its November meeting, council members conducted a heated discussion over whether to intervene two years into the Amendment 16 catch share system.
Council Vice Chairman Jim Odlin, one of Maine's most successful fishermen and a recognized winner in the allocation of groundfish, argued against after-the-fact intervention.
This is "not the time" for "micromanaging" and "social engineering," said Odlin. He advocated instead to allow the system "to right-size itself in a dynamic environment. It has to be allowed to adjust to conditions or we'll cause more problems."
However, Amendment 16 remains under a political, socio-economic and legal cloud.
Last week, the original coalition of fishing interests, led by the port cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, submitted briefs to the First U.S. Court of Appeals asserting that the council and NOAA Fisheries conspired to create a limited access privilege program — a particular form of catch shares — designed to circumvent the legal requirement that such changes in the economic system be authorized by a two-thirds vote of industry stakeholders.
Last month, Gov. Deval Patrick — backed by U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, as well as Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and others — also petitioned Commerce Secretary John Bryson to declare that Amendment 16 had brought about an economic "disaster" for Massachusetts fishermen.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.