By Richard Gaines
Despite unmatched natural assets, America's heavily-regulated fisheries continued to underperform in global competition, with landings down a bit more in 2009, according to the annual report of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Covering 2009, the findings reflect a two decade trend in which conservation has trumped productivity.
Landings in edible and commercial fish were down 6 percent to 7.9 billion pounds, and the value of the landings fell by 11 percent to $3.9 billion — adding up $2.2 billion to a federal season of trade deficit of more than $280 billion.
In 2009, the U.S. fishing system remained largely unchanged, with heavy and effective controls on fishermen's effort driving down landings but moving the nation's fisheries closer to sustainability, according to the NOAA study.
The effort controls focused on limiting fishermen's days at sea, and barring access to certain fishing grounds at different times of the year. All of the data in the report was compiled before this year's debut of the new catch share regulatory system throughout New England.
The New England groundfishery, however, took an 11 percent hit in 2009, with landings off $12.2 million to $101.1 million.
Again, thanks to scallops, New Bedford remained the No. 1 U.S. port in landings' value at $249.2 million from 170 million pounds. Gloucester also treaded water, holding the No. 11 spot in landings value at $50.4 million from 122 million pounds of mostly groundfish, low value herring, skates and dogfish.
Point Judith, R.I., ranked 20th in landings value and Portland, Maine, 46th.
The national decline in landings and value meant that the industry added $2.2 billion to the burgeoning trade deficit, which hit $289 billion this year.
Globally, in 2008, the last year cited in the NOAA report, landings — which count wild and farmed fish — increased by 1.7 percent, dominated by China, which produced 33 percent of global output. America ranks sixth in dollar value behind not only China but also India, Indonesia and Japan whose global market shares are around 5 percent, with the U.S. just below that level.
The Fish Stock Sustainability Index, used by NOAA to track the progress toward sustainability, climbed for the 10th straight year, up to 573 from 555.5, an increase of 3.5 percent. Since 2000, when the index stood at 357.5, the increase has been 60.1 percent.
The emphasis on conservation at the expense of the economy set the stage for radical changes imposed by the Obama administration.
Although it began an accelerated transformation of the fisheries in 2009, the "Fisheries of the United States Report," reflects a system that was left to the Democrats from President Bush.
The imposition of the catch share system, which grants fishermen in "sector" cooperatives an assigned "share" of a total allowable catch for each species — and encourages fishermen to buy, sell or trade shares with colleagues of with outside investors — began in some parts of the country the Clinton administration and continued during the presidency of George W. Bush.
But Obama administration policy, implemented by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, a scientist closely associated the economic policies of the Environmental Defense Fund, has pushed the transformation to top priority over the objections of an industry majority. And it has come at a heavy cost to coastal economies, and a political cost to Obama.
A lawsuit filed by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford a variety of fishing interests is challenging the motives and constitutionality of Amendment 16, as the catch share system for the groundfishery is called.
Catch shares — designed, Lubchenco has acknowledged, to eliminate a "significant fraction" of the mom and pop fishing boat businesses in favor of a smaller number of what Lubchenco describes as "better jobs" in the few big businesses expected to control the industry after consolidation — has forged a unique opposition alliance to defend the jobs and fishing culture the industry has supported for hundreds of years.
United in opposition to Obama's effort to re-engineer, modernize and recapitalize the industry in New England is a core of the president's East Coast congressional support group — including Congressmen Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford, and John Tierney and Sen. John Kerry. But they are joined by a number of key Republicans, including Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
The litigation and allies of the industry argue that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows a better balancing between the need for conservation and the economic interests of the fishing communities held back from the fish since the mid-1990s.
The international trade deficit has come into focus recently along with the dearth of jobs as flaws in what is technically a recovery from the economic bubble recession.
A typical take on the trade deficit was published in The New York Times last Friday.
"A successful recovery strategy will require aggressive measures to reduce the trade deficit — including new and expanded tariffs to encourage the sale of domestic goods over imports and a serious reindustrialization policy to create manufacturing strength to exploit these new opportunities," wrote Alan Tonelson and Kevin L. Kearns of the United State Business and Industrial Council.
In fishing, the trade deficit results from "the high cost of fishing in the U.S.," said a NOAA source.
"There's no simple statement about the trade deficit (in fishing)," said New Hampshire commercial fisherman.
A member of the New England Fishery Management Council and a longtime participant in studies of global fishing, Goethel said it was probable that bureaucratic government has contributed to the trade deficit but difficult to quantify.
He described U.S. fisheries as light years ahead of most European and Asian fisheries but also noted that most imports are cheaper even with transport than domestic options.
"The only change in trade policy that benefits us fishermen," Goethel said, would be if "NOAA could require that the fish entering the U.S. come from sustainable fisheries."
NOAA earlier this year announced its intention to begin pushing faster development of aquaculture, which accounts for a sizeable percentage of imports but is a form of industrial fishing that lags in the U.S.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.