By Richard Gaines
---- — At the back of the groundfishery’s pecking order is a small group of small boat fishermen operating in the three-mile wide confines of state waters with state permits.
Don King is one of them.
A number of years ago, King, who was featured in the NBC News segment on the demise of the cod fishing way of life in Gloucester Wednesday night, built a boat for himself, named Scotia Girl, designed to allow him to gillnet for fin fish while also lobstering.
Subsistence fishing at the smallest scale demands creativity, King explained in an interview Friday.
But innovation sours when not combined with opportunity, and opportunity is what King and his cohorts — about 20 full time and 40 more part-time state fishermen — have been denied by Paul Diodati, the director of marine fisheries for Massachusetts.
In a Feb. 5 letter to the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Diodati explained that he would not allow the state boats greater access to intermittently closed areas because just outside the state waters, bigger boats — boats of a scale and equipped for the rigors of offshore Georges Bank — have been scooping up cod.
This fishing for pulses of cod is one of the most harmful unintended consequences of the catch share commodity trading system rapidly adopted in 2009 at the behest of former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and rushed into operation in 2010, driving the industry into what is now a government certified economic disaster. The easy bartering of allocated quota under the catch share system, along with the elimination of daily catch limits that had been at 800 pounds, have combined to allow boats to load up with quota and then load up on Gulf of Maine cod by fishing close to the border with state waters.
In the letter which summarized his decisions against loosening restrictions on the state boats, Diodati wrote that he and other state officials “share” the concern expressed by King and his colleagues at a December meeting that “heavy fishing, unencumbered by trip limits, has been occurring, particularly on Gulf of Maine Cod when they are aggragated for migration, feeding (and) spawning, and has significantly contributed to declines in local abundance.”
But under these circumstances, Diodati concluded “it would be illogical to counter heavy fishing at the state boundry by liberalizing fishing activity in state waters.”
King begs to differ. He notes that the state boats are so small, are allocated so little as part of the federal distribution and are so barred from fishing for so much of the year through rolling grounds closures, harbor porpoise closures and conservation closures, that allowing a smidgen of help would have virtually no effect on the vitality of the stocks. It could, however, keep help keep these smallest scale commercial boats working.
King notes that, in the 2012 fishing year which ends April 30, the state boats were allocated 1 million pounds of Gulf of Maine cod. Of that, the boats have taken home about 200,000 pounds or 20 percent of the allocation. The federal allocation for 2012 was for 7.4 million pounds of Gulf of Maine cod overall.
But King also explains that his appeal to Diodati was to get greater access to yellowtail flounder and winter flounder — otherwise known as lemon sole. Both stocks’ health are disputed, but fishermen have been coming home in recent months from day trips announcing the impossibility of avoiding yellowtail.
King flipped through the calendar which shows that, with the variety of closures, “we’re allowed to fish for two weeks in the first five months and only four over the entire year.”
But the constraints are actually worse than that because, when the handcuffs come off between June and September, the waters typically filled with dogfish, and when the dogs are around, no one catches anything else. With NOAA finally compensating for its protection of dogfish in past years — a conservation program that undoubtedly helped create the shortage in cod, which dog fish eat voraciously — and allowing a 4,000-pound dogfish limit per trip, King notes that the price for that stock will be collapsing to something close to worthless.
In a letter to Diodati written two weeks before he issued his written policy for the state boats, King underscored that “the small inshore fleet has done nothing to deplete or over fish the resource. We have contributed to the rebuilding process to the point of near fiscal catastrophe. As a small boat fishery, our needs can be better managed with smaller, yet more numerous allocations.
“With this in mind,” he continued, “we ask that all rolling closures be eliminated and cod conservation zones remain as currently mandated. This would allow for a more consistent revenue stream to sustain our small businesses.
“Anticipating a cod allocation for the state of 120,000 pounds (half of what is now expected),” he said, “we would propose a reduction of the 800 pound trip limit to 200 pounds for the month of May and 400 pounds thereafter.”
However, Diodati refused to loosen up for the state boats — mostly gillnetters and hook fishermen with a couple of small draggers, most of them Gloucester-based. And that refusal is based on the carnage on cod just outside the state line by boats that, under the catch share system, found themselves with the motive, means — and opportunity — to clean up.
It doesn’t seem right, King said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.