GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 10, 2011

Catch-share funding ban adds new signers

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The bipartisan coalition of U.S. representatives who've urged the House Appropriations Committee to add the so-called Jones Amendment banning new fiscal 2012 catch share rollouts to NOAA's pending budget has nearly doubled in size to 35 members.

Two dozen lawmakers, mostly Republicans from districts along the Gulf of Mexico and the deep South, signed a letter by Florida Congressman Steve Southerland II, asking both the Appropriations panel and the Subcommittee on Commerce and Science to expand the scope of the proposed ban from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf coast as well.

When the Jones amendment passed the House by 10 votes last January, and before the Senate watered it down somewhat, the funding ban stretched along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The prohibition, however, was largely symbolic since no new rollouts were scheduled in fiscal 2011.

There are, however, three are set to go this year in the Northeast and Southeast. The New England groundfishery — including dozens of boats out of Gloucester — began operating under the catch share system in May 2010.

The Tuesday letter from the Gulf representatives piggy-backed on an similar letter sent a week ago by Congressman Walter Jones and signed by 16 colleagues, including Massachusetts Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank.

Jones, a North Carolina Republican, has worked closely with the both Massachusetts Democrats — Tierney, who serves Gloucester, and Frank who serves New Bedford, the state's biggest ports.

Due to parliamentary maneuvers in the Senate, the only option for opponents for this year is limited to getting the amendment added during reconciliation by the conference committee.

But, led by the Environmental Defense Fund and its allies, defenders of catch shares — the Obama administration's signature fisheries policy — have spent more than $250,000 on lobbying by multiple firms, including one featuring a former member of the House Appropriations Committee, and print advertising.

One piece, a $13,000 full page in Politico, published for Capitol Hill, asks: "Who knows better when it comes to fisheries management: fishermen or Washington insiders?"

The ad makes clear it considers opponents of catch shares to be the Washington insiders.

Here in New England, however, the NOAA Science Center in Woods Hole last month released a study showing 20 percent of the groundfishing boats in the nation's newest and most complex catch share fishery has experienced hyper-concentration of shares into a small number of hands, producing job losses and the elimination of a number of small boats and businesses — including 21 boats which dropped out of the 96-boat Gloucester fleet alone.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry praised the study for illustrating the harm to mom-and-pop businesses by industry trends "abetted by federal policies," and said the report builds a case he has been pressing for NOAA to acknowledge that the policy has brought on an economic disaster justifying emergency policies.

Kerry pointed to findings in the report showing that 20 percent of the boats last year had nearly 80 percent of the groundfish revenues — up from 68 percent in 2009.

Yet, Kerry has not positioned himself on the Jones Amendment and has focused instead — in contrast to his House Democratic colleagues from Massachusetts, Tierney and Frank — on teasing concessions from the administration, including a belated safety net for fishermen dispossessed in the distribution of groundfishery catch share wealth.

Within New England, important interests such as the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition have taken the same approach, earning the enmity of many fishermen who see the system as rigged to deliver control into the hands of inside players.

There are also accommodationists, fishing groups that have come to endorse the catch share approach and have benefited the re-engineering of the industry.

The accommodationists include multiple groups of fishermen in Maine, including EDF allies such as Associated Fisheries of Maine, a trade group, and its biggest and most influential member, Jim Odlin, who owns a fleet of large draggers, midwater trawlers and a service company in Portland.

Odlin is also vice chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council. Before his 2010 election as a council officer, the panel chose a qualification system for catch shares that ensured big winners — Odlin's own interests included — and big losers, mainly mom-and-pop boat businesses that were deficient in catch history.

The Commerce Department's inspector general, Todd Zinser, late last month granted a request by Tierney and Frank to open an investigation into allegedly improper influence of non-government organizations in the shaping of the catch share program for the groundfishery.

Along with Tierney and Frank, signers of the Jones letter were Republicans Jon Runyan, Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith, of New Jersey, Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, Sandy Adams, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Allen West, Jon Mica, Tom Rooney and Bill Posey of Florida, and Peter King of New York.

Democrats signing Jones' letter included Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and William Keating of Massachusetts.

Signers of Southerland's letter Tuesday, along with Mica, Adams, West, Rooney, Ros-Lehtinen, Posey, Runyon and Guinta, were Republicans Tim Griffin of Arkansas, Jeff Duncan, Joe Wilson and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, John Fleming, Jeff Landry and Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, David Rivera, Ander Crenshaw, Jeff Miller, Vern Buchanan, Gus Bilirakis and Richard Nugent of Florida.

Also signing was Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat.

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