By Richard Gaines
NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco Thursday issued a ringing defense of her and now the nation's catch share system, telling one of her and her policy's fiercest critics that catch shares are "merely a tool," not an outcome, and are thus "not the cause" of lost fishing industry jobs.
Addressed to Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who represents the fishing communities of the Outer Banks, Lubchenco's letter implicitly challenges scientific findings by a government-academic team that the new catch share regimen for the New England groundfishery had brought the historically independent industry to its knees.
Gov. Deval Patrick and the Congressional delegation sent the report of a government-made economic crisis to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Nov. 5, along with a formal plea for Locke to use authority he has acknowledged having to issue an emergency order lifting catch limits to feed vitality back into the industry.
According to the report, prepared for Patrick by academic and state government scientists and sent to Locke, the catch share regimen together with super-conservative catch limits chosen by regulators had idled more than half the fleet, and concentrated control of the seafood catch in the wealthiest hands, destabilizing the ports' economies.
Lubchenco's letter to Jones, who has worked closely with the Massachusetts delegation in opposition to catch shares and the scandalized law enforcement system at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was sent the day after Massachusetts' U.S. senators and ocean district congressmen — including John Tierney for Gloucester and Barney Frank for New Bedford — acted in frustration over the lack of a response by Locke to the now five-week-old plea for an emergency allocation of groundfish.
Together with Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and Rep. Bill Delahunt, Tierney and Frank urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to link approval of the administration's $50 million request to expand catch shares — included in the Omnibus budget bill — to approval of the requested emergency order to relieve a government-made economic crisis in Gloucester, New Bedford and other ports. The Senate was expected to take up the massive spending package soon.
Locke and Lubchenco's offices have repeatedly said the report and request remain under examination.
A spokeswoman for Lubchenco reiterated Wednesday that a response was expected "soon."
But Jones, who joined Frank and Tierney in calling for Lubchenco's removal from office last summer, found her statements characterizing catch shares as economically benign to be "outrageous and completely out of touch with the facts," Jones' press secretary, Catherine Fodor, said Thursday.
"Any fair-minded observer would acknowledge that the whole point of catch shares is to reduce fishing effort and get boats out of the water," Fodor added.
"Dr. Lubchenco continues to ignore the facts in general and particularly when it comes to the impact the catch share program is having on our local fishermen," Tierney said in an e-mail.
Jones' letter to Lubchenco said it appeared to him that NOAA was pandering to "special interest groups" and purging regional management councils in an attempt to "hijack" the council process ... to impose "catch shares" on an unwilling industry.
Lubchenco did not explicitly address those allegations, but said, "It is an unfortunate fact that a number of fisheries are presently losing jobs at sea and on land and underperforming biologically and economically."
"Properly designed catch share programs can change job loss and underperformance of fisheries," she wrote, "by helping fishermen stay on the water as fisheries rebuild and achieve long-term sustainability in the fish stocks and the economics that depend on them."
The consolidation of wealth, however, has been a signature of catch share programs worldwide, and is even noted in a policy paper sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been catch-shares' biggest cheerleader. That paper was the sole research cited by Lubchenco, the former EDF board chairwoman, in the proposed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries budget she submitted in February.
That budget proposal asked for $54 million to expand the catch share system nationwide — even though the policy was not officially declared until Nov. 5, just after the mid-term elections.
As Lubchenco had been vice chairwoman at EDF and a linchpin in a global network of hardline anti-fishing scientists and environmentalists.
But the Redstone Strategic Group, which did much of the paper-writing drawing from a 2007 EDF sponsored paper, concluded in the earlier paper that catch shares have a record of creating "community, processor and job losses; private economic gains at public expense; and in some cases increased ownership concentration and consolidation."
Toned down in the report Lubchenco cited in her budget submission, references to the catch shares' negatives were virtually removed in Lubchenco's budget's many references to a re-engineering of the nation's oldest industry, still operating under traditional profit-sharing and owner-operator principles.
Redstone also noted that these harmful outcomes could be reduced with careful engineering of the catch share program, but the one that went into effect in the New England groundfishery last May was rushed, pushed hard by the newly confirmed NOAA administrator.
In September, Brian Rothschild, the leading academic fisheries scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, also wrote in SouthCoast Today — the online edition of the Standard-Times of New Bedford — that the problems with the New England groundfish catch share regimen was a result of hurried engineering.
"It was rolled out prematurely," Rothschild said, "without the level of analysis, planning, budgeting and community dialogue that would be expected with a major federal action."
Under Lubchenco's and EDF's catch share format, fishermen working in cooperatives are allocated "shares" of a total allowable catch for each fish stock, but are encouraged to buy, sell or trade their shares among their groups, or to outside investors.
Many fishermen and fishng activists say that outside trading leads to a takeover of small independent fishing boats and businesses by large-scale corporate entities. And those fears have been confirmed in fisheries where catch shares are in place, with more shares concentrated in fewer hands.
In April 2009, in a written response to questions from the Times, Lubchenco said "a significant fraction of the vessels will need to be removed to make the fishery sustainable and profitable."
The letter from Patrick to Locke was for relief that would keep catch levels within the conservation limits required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.