GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 29, 2012

Group pushes for fisheries failure call

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Nearly two years into the nation's most ambitious experiment in catch share fisheries management, the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition has urged the governors of New England's coastal states and New York and New Jersey to issue a joint request for a federal "fisheries failure" declaration.

Such a finding would make federal financial aid available for assessing and mitigating economic and social dislocations.

The joint declaration would cover the Northeast groundfishery, which drew adventuresome European fishermen into the Northwest Atlantic before the onset of colonization and has been the lifeblood of Atlantic ports for more than 300 years.

The Obama administration has still not responded to a solo filing for a "disaster" declaration last November by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, now a co-chairman of the president's re-election campaign.

In 2010, the Obama administration sped up the implementation of a catch share format that brought 19 stocks into a system based on hard catch limits and 10-year stock rebuilding deadlines fused with a system of buying, selling or trading shares of the fishermen's "catch," or allotted quota among their own cooperatives, called sectors, or to outside investors.

The result was as NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said she desired — the elimination of "a sizeable fraction of the fleet" and accelerated consolidation of the industry into the hands of larger boats and businesses, with a number of small owner-operated businesses fading from the fleet. The first year of catch shares in New England brought a loss of some 21 of 96 Gloucester boats groundfishing then alone, according to NOAA figures.

The triggering event of the "disaster" now being cited by the Seafood Coalition, the region's dominant industry organization, was a 2011 scientific assessment of Gulf of Maine cod that found the stock was not rebuilding nearly as quickly as a highly optimistic benchmark assessment had shown in 2008.

So divergent were the two assessments that confidence in NOAA science was shaken across the industry, the fishing ports of the Northeast, Congress and state and local government offices, leaving the agency with a unsteady foundation for setting catch limits for 2012 that will constrict fishing for inshore cod by no less than 22 percent, according to NOAA's Sam Rauch, the acting administrator for fisheries.

That "interim" measure, the only flexibility allowed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, would lead into years of virtual non-fishing for inshore cod, experts say. And with that stock — the signature and most essential fish of the region — off limits, the entire mix of species found on the bottom of New England waters in close proximity would also become virtually untouchable, since cod could be accidentally hauled up as bycatch in pursuing other stocks.

The coalition, founded here in 2003 as a counterweight to the alliance of foundation funded, green non-government organizations and the NOAA bureaucracy, wrote to Govs. Patrick, Paul LePage of Maine, John Lynch of New Hampshire, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Dan Malloy of Maine, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey on Monday.

"It appears certain now," wrote Jackie Odell, executive director of the coalition, "that the catch level for fishing year 2012 beginning on May 1, 2012, will result in the collapse of many small business fishing operations. This holds true for all vessel sizes and fishing gears throughout the region. This is truly a regional crisis."

The coalition, which organized 12 of the 17 Northeast groundfishing sectors, says its membership includes more than 300 trawl, gillnet and hook gear vessels out of the roughly 450 active in the seven-state region. In addition, the coalition represents shoreside services.

The legality of the entire catch share system in New England has been challenged in a federal lawsuit now before the First District U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston, while the Commerce Department inspector general is investigating whether corporately-backed nonprofit and other non-government groups wielded improper influence on the writing of Amendment 16, which includes the catch share regulatory package.

The letter to the governors represents a dramatic shift in position from one crafted in part by Odell, though not distributed officially by the coalition, last November.

Signed by 109 groundfishermen, that letter to members of Congress urged policy makers to avoid disturbing the status quo (except with financial aid), and was widely seen as intended to oppose possible future action to limit the degree of consolidation and maintain fleet diversity between bigger offshore boats and the day boats.

But day boat captains had been complaining privately for months that the offshore boats had been poaching Gulf of Maine cod from Stellwagen Bank — moving in with their trawl nets to capture fish, then landing them after the big boats moved across the line into the Georges Bank zone so that they could be counted as "Georges Bank cod."

David Pierce, Massachusetts' deputy director of marine fisheries and a member of NOAA's Northeast regional fishery council, brought the complaints into the open during a tense Feb. 1 council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H.

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