By Richard Gaines
The first year of Northeast groundfishing with the industry operating as a commodities market saw catch shares shifting from the smaller boats and businesses to the better capitalized ones, the NOAA Science Center confirmed in a new report issued Tuesday.
Allocations exceeded catch totals in the three smallest vessel size categories, while — in the category of the biggest boats — catch exceeded allocation, constituting a "broad shift" of catch shares into the largest and wealthiest hands, according to the team of nine social scientists who crafted their final report on the groundfishery.
The authors also reported seeing signs of port transformation.
"Retail and service sector employment likely expanded at the expense of groundfishing harvesting jobs and supporting businesses," they wrote.
With the system favoring larger scale businesses, crew members reported "lower income under sector management," the scientists reported.
In Essex County — primarily Gloucester — 19 crew positions were lost from 2009 to 2010, while, over four years, 44 fishing jobs vanished. Similar declines were found across New England, according to the report.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry Tuesday 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 path toward an economic disaster declaration.
He also highlighted the finding in the report that showed 20 percent of the boats with nearly 80 percent of the groundfish revenues — up from 68 percent in 2009.
A highlight of the study — data showing prices paid for groundfish were higher across the board — was mitigated in the context of huge commodity price increases on a global scale.
Even with the addition of the data on internal trading transactions to their earlier interim study of September, the authors cautioned repeatedly that the picture of what happened to the New England fishing industry in the first year of Amendment 16, ended April 30, is far from complete.
But virtually all the new reporting amplified the original theme — that this catch share program, like the others that preceded it in less complex fisheries — has sped up consolidation and job losses across the industry.
That consolidation, am admitted goal of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, was feared and denounced by majorities in the ports where less fishing action equates to socio-economic weakness and job elimination.
Tuesday — no longer asserting her hope to see a "sizeable fraction of the fleet" eliminated, as she expressed her aim soon after her Senate confirmation — Lubchenco, the object of bipartisan calls for her replacement by President Obama, acknowledging the report by the Science Center shows signs of "continuing negative trends within certain segments ... with negative impacts on fishing communities."
Moreover, Lubchenco said, "the effects of declining participation in the fishery and other more localized effects may not be unique to Massachusetts," adding that she welcomed the opportunity to partner with other states, as NOAA is doing with Massachusetts, to determine if the system has wrought an economic disaster.
Kerry, meanwhile, has taken the lead position in a scientific, political and legal struggle to obtain a disaster declaration from top commerce and conservation officials that would clear the way for a variety of relief — from direct financial assistance to emergency allocations of extra fish fed into the system.
In a letter to Lubchenco last Wednesday, Kerry advised her that she would have the evidence needed to justify a disaster declaration and in diplomatic language gave her until the end of the month to produce the finding.
Technically, the authority to make the finding rests with the newly confirmed Commerce Secretary John Bryson, who has agreed to Kerry's request to come to Massachusetts in December to see for himself the impact of the government's regulatory system on the fishing industry.
Bryson's predecessor, Gary Locke — now the ambassador to China — rejected the initial appeal for a disaster declaration last January, after encouraging the effort.
"I've been pressing a long time now to get a disaster declaration and other specific actions to help Massachusetts' small boat fishermen. I can see a clear path forward to get there. I said at the field hearing that their way of life wouldn't end on my watch, and I mean it," Kerry said in a prepared statement. He was referring to the Oct. 3 field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee at the State House, which featured Lubchenco as a witness and a quick exit to an editorial board meeting.
Congress last winter voted to bar new catch share system roll outs through this November, and the declaration of an economic disaster tied to NOAA's catch share policies in New England would give opponents new material for the congressional battle to come.
"I anticipate soon receiving a revised fishery disaster request from Massachusetts that is based on these new analyses," Lubchenco said in a statement released with the Science Center study. "I have instructed the NOAA team to work with the commonwealth to immediately review the request in light of the new data and determine the extent of loss."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.