GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 29, 2011

NOAA chief offers fishermen signs of relief

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has made a series of policy commitments to relieve hardships and improve opportunity for the embattled groundfishing industry.

She also outlined steps her agency expects to take quickly to reach the conclusion that an "affected group" of fishermen warrants disaster assistance.

The commitments nearly complete a punch list of needs outlined in a letter to Lubchenco last week by U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

In a prepared statement, he described Lubchenco's actions as "a down payment" of "welcome steps" on the path to the disaster declaration that the state has been seeking since last fall.

Lubchenco's letter explained in detail how she — on behalf John Bryson, the new Commerce secretary — intended to process the documentation and decide whether at least a portion of the industry has been so harmed by economic conditions and government policies that emergency help is warranted.

The talk of a disaster declaration echoes a lengthy debate in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief has defended the catch share approach to fisheries operations and management against claims that it creates a few satisfied winners, larger and better capitalized operations, while eliminating a growing number of smaller boats.

Lubchenco's letter is conditioned on the findings in two as yet unreleased economic research studies of the performance of the fleet during the first year of catch shares in New England — studies showing decreased quota or fishing opportunities due to tight statutory rebuilding deadlines for less than healthy stocks.

Her letter, however, indicated the focus is on a limited declaration that qualifies only a subsection of the fleet for emergency economic aid.

The first request — from Gov. Deval Patrick and Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney last winter — sought $21 million for the entire groundfishing industry, which is undergoing consolidation and job loss as catch share trading favors the best capitalized businesses and biggest boats.

But Gary Locke, then the Commerce secretary and now the ambassador to China, denied the request, asserting the data was not new and didn't make the case for an economic disaster finding.

Coming to Gloucester

Meanwhile, Lubchenco and Locke's successor, John Bryson, has accepted Kerry's invitation to visit Massachusetts for fact-finding. And Lubchenco said she expects to come to Gloucester, likely in December.

Those plans drew a positive response Friday from Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who — with a growing number of officials calling for Lubchenco's ouster, said she would rather see the NOAA chief come to Gloucester to get a firsthand sense of the economic problems her catch share system is causing. A NOAA report issued earlier this month noted that Gloucester has lost 21 boats — and their related jobs — leaving an estimated 75 still fishing.

"I am pleased Dr. Lubchenco has accepted my invitation to revisit Gloucester," Kirk told the Times on Friday. "I believe it is in the city's best interest to work cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Commerce and NOAA."

At an Oct. 3 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee that Kerry organized, Paul Diodati, director of NOAA's marine fisheries, gave a preview of the studies referred to by Lubchenco when, in his written testimony, he said a working group of about 32 South Shore fishermen, associated in Sector 10 — a cooperative working under catch shares — was experiencing extreme hardship, with landings just 60 percent of the previous year's due to the catch share system.

"It is our conclusion from our case study," Diodati wrote, "that in Sector 10, the catch share system caused significant consolidation of revenues among fewer vessels, and has caused severe economic strain among the majority of fishermen, most of whom are small vessel owners."

Lubchenco also referred to a socio-economic report of the NOAA Science Center last week which showed that overall the New England industry was "doing marginally better," but negative trends continued "within certain segments of the fishery."

She said she expected getting the two state studies next week, along with a "fishery disaster request" based on all three studies — the Science Center's and the two that are now in final editing in Diodati's office.

"Once we receive the request," she continued, "I have instructed the NOAA team to work with the commonwealth to assess, as quickly as possible, the revised request, and, if it is warranted, to identify the affected group of the fishery, quantify the extent of their losses, and develop a plan for the uses of any relief funds that might be appropriated."

Meanwhile, Lubchenco also announced a willingness to liberalize the carryover limit of uncaught allocation from one year to another to beyond the present 10 percent.

Among the internal management actions considered in her letter, Lubchenco also announced a willingness to "discuss" the plight of two fishermen whose businesses have been harmed through snafus in internal and external communications at NOAA.

Kerry had taken up the cause of Jim Keding of Plymouth and Kevin Scola of Marshfield and concluded that NOAA mistakes have brought them economic calamity.

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