GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 11, 2012

U.S. House approves bill to stall catch shares

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

A mini-budget containing language that stops the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from developing, approving or implementing new catch share fishery management programs along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico was approved Thursday by the full U.S. House of Representatives.

If it survives reconciliation with the Senate's version of the Appropriations Act for Commerce, Justice and Science, the anti-catch share rider would not affect the catch share regimen that — working in concert with statutory limits on catch limits since 2010 — has thrown the New England and Northeast groundfishery into tumult and contraction, shedding jobs in Gloucester and elsewhere as fishermen sell permits or lease their quota and stay at home.

But it could bar NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council from launching a catch share program to restructure the Northeast monkfishery. A limited-access privilege program for monkfishing — as catch share systems are formally known — has been under study in the council for some time.

Monkfish are now managed separately from groundfish though they inhabit many of the same waters, ranging from Maine to North Carolina. Once considered a "junk" fish, monks now are highly valued, and landings in recent years produced upward of $50 million to fishermen at the docks.

The anti-catch share rider sponsored by Republicans Steve Southerland of Florida and Michael Grimm of New York was approved late Wednesday on a 220-191 roll call vote along party lines. In a letter to colleagues before the vote, Southerland and Grimm described catch shares as a concept to enrich the few at the expense of the many by "privatizing access to a once open fishery."

Democrats John Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, Barney Frank, whose district includes New Bedford, and William Keating, who represents small ports along Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod, continued their opposition to the signature fisheries policy of the Obama administration, by siding with the majority, as they did last year when a similar rider — sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican — was approved 221-121 before being watered down in the Senate.

The Environmental Defense Fund has reported spending at least $90,000 on lobbyists on behalf of the catch share policy, which is associated with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, since her time as an officer of EDF.

Catch share advocates, EDF and its financial partner, the Walton Family Foundation, argue that catch shares encourage conservation, but opponents see catch shares creating intense capital issues that are driving out the small, independent boats and owners, leaving the biggest investing companies — such as Wal-Mart — with power to control distribution with economies of scale and price. Among $71 million in conservation grants given out last year by the Walton Family Foundation, $13 million went to EDF.

The House approved its version of the Appropriations Act for Commerce, Justice and Science Thursday afternoon, 247-163.

The Senate Commerce Committee has finished work on its own version of a mini budget for Commerce, Justice and Science that includes a rider to defund NOAA's Northeast Regional Office in Gloucester and consolidate it into the headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Silver Spring, Md.

However, the Senate Commerce Committee bill has not been moved to the floor for approval, leaving the timing and outcome of the reconciliation up in the air.

But the Senate, which is Democrat controlled, is considered a much tougher sell than the House on the halt to expanding catch share programs, which after the 2008 Presidential election were heavily promoted by an alliance of three green groups headed by Environmental Defense Fund.

"Since its implementation, catch-shares has consistently proven to be an ineffective, unfair system of management that has resulted in financial losses for local fishermen," Tierney said in an email to the Times. "Repeated calls from members of Congress to NOAA to reform Magnuson Stevens and the catch share system have fallen on deaf ears. That is why I voted in favor of Rep. Southerland's amendment, which takes steps to return fairness and economic stability to our fishing community."

Gov. Deval Patrick, who co-chairs the Obama reelection campaign, last fall filed scientific papers to support a claim that the catch share system in the groundfishery has proved an economic and social disaster. There has been no response from Commerce Secretary John Bryson.

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