By Richard Gaines
---- — The 2010 catch share commodification of the Northeast groundfishery, hailed by advocates including NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco as a sure path to restoring overfished stocks and profitability for the fleet, has had the opposite effect on Gulf of Maine cod, according to the state’s director of marine fisheries.
The habit of bigger offshore boats to accumulate catch shares in Gulf of Maine cod and capitalize on pulses of the cod with landings far larger than 800 pounds has “significantly contributed to declines in local abundance” of the essential fish for the day boats, state fisheries chief Paul Diodati said in a memo sent Feb. 5 to the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission and obtained by the Times.
Diodati wrote the memo to explain his decision not to allow the fleet of about 20 full-time state permitted boats access to closed areas inside the state-federal border, three miles from shore. He was asked to give the state fleet access to the closed areas in a meeting with representatives of the state fleet in December.
The appeal for access to the state’s closed areas from the state-permitted boats was predicated on the complaint that the big boats operating with large allocations of quota were leaving next to nothing for them. One of the contingent that appealed for relief from Diodati was Don King, a Gloucester lobsterman and state permitted groundfisherman.
“In the days-at-sea system,” said King in an interview Wednesday, “when we had trip limits, were rebuilding the cod stocks like crazy.”
But since the onset of catch share trading in the commodity system by members of fishing cooperatives known as sectors, formulated by the council in the years since Congress in 2007 mandated hard catch limits beginning in 2010, cod stocks’ strong revival ended, and the possible death spiral of the industry began. In shore cod landings were are proposed to drop 77 percent this year, beginning May 1, and off shore, Georges Bank cod landings are set to be cut 61 percent.
“The fishermen we met with argue that effort by sector fishermen has been concentrated on the state/federal boundary of areas 124 and 125 (the South Shore) in May and June and off areas 132 and 133 (around Gloucester) in June,” Diodati wrote. “Consequently, they claim vessels fishing in these federal waters intercept fish before and after they cross into and out of state waters and dramatically impact non-federal vessel effort and catch.
“We share their concern that heavy fishing, unencumbered by trip limits, has been occurring, particularly on Gulf of Maine cod when they are aggregated for migration, feeding, spawning or other purposes,” he continued.
But he concluded that “given these conditions,” it would be illogical to counter heavy fishing at the state boundary by liberalizing fishing activity in state waters.”
New Hampshire groundfisherman David Goethel, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, said in an email that the syndrome described by Diodati was predictable if not inevitable.
“My personal belief is that the very warm water temperatures which have occurred since approximately 2000 have led to a decline of productivity for both George’s Bank and Gulf of Maine cod,” he wrote. “In other words, they would have declined under either Days at Sea or sectors. That being said, sectors occurred at the worst possible time.
“Just as the fish began to decline, sectors allowed a consolidation of catch effort onto the most efficient platforms, both large and small, and the full utilization of a hard TAC (total allowable catch) which had been set too high. Under days at sea much of that TAC would have been inaccessible because of leasing restrictions and a trip limit.
“There are two lessons here,” Goethel continued.
“One is, as I have often said, hard TAC’s do not end overfishing and actually often increase it. The second is, you cannot create massive incentives for efficiency and not expect people to harvest all that they can. Sectors are an economic system which does not mean they are necessarily sound from a biological perspective.”
Data indicating a dramatic decline in the vitality of cod stocks triggered a crisis that has expanded into an officially declared “economic disaster” over the past two-plus years, and with inshore cod allocations heading down by 77 percent this year, according to new limits set by NOAA and the New England council, the very survival of the oldest continuing industry in America has become uncertain.
The elimination of trip limits and the days at sea system of effort controls — and their replacement by an allocation of the stocks and trading catch shares — have allowed boats to lease unlimited amounts of Gulf of Maine cod quota and enjoy windfall landings when pulses of the iconic stock show up in the easily reached near shore waters around Gloucester and along the South Shore, according to reports that began as early as 2010 from day-boat fishermen.
Many of the boats seen trawling through the shallow waters near shore are much larger than the typical day boats — which dominate the remaining Gloucester fleet and, in the days-at-sea system when there was an 800-pound trip limit, had the shallow waters around Stellwagen Bank to themselves.
Diodati’s deputy director David Pierce, who represents Massachusetts on the New England Fishery Management Council, gave voice to those concerns for the first time at a council meeting in February 2012.
Lubchenco, who leaves office today, and like-minded scientists and political figures co-authored a policy paper for then President-elect Obama in 2008, arguing that the effort control system produced a “race for fish” that weakened fish stocks and worked against profitability. The Oceans of Abundance paper sponsored by Environmental Defense Fund and funded primarily by the Walton (Wal-Mart) Family Foundation, urged the adoption of catch shares — the catch-and-trade system —to eliminate what was seen as a failed effort control approach.
The precipitous decline in cod stocks outlined in a 2011 NOAA stock assessment brought about the finding of the acting secretary of commerce last September that the Northeast groundfishery had declined into a socio-economic disaster in the three years of catch share commodity trading. The data surfaced just three years after an earlier study had found cod stocks to be rebuilding effectively as of 2008, the year before Lubchenco and company began the push to put the catch share system in place.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.