By Richard Gaines
The deputy director of Massachusetts' marine fisheries has charged that the federal groundfish catch share system has allowed big trawlers designed for offshore fishing to pillage cod from the inshore waters of Stellwagen Bank.
David Pierce, who is also a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, made the allegation during the Wednesday afternoon session of the council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., where the panel had been struggling to come to grips legally, economically and politically with the findings of a new NOAA Science Center assessment that inshore or Gulf of Maine cod stocks are collapsing.
The intense pressure on the inshore cod population by boats of more than 70 feet has been one of many mutually inclusive theories for how the most important food fish for the region's commercial and recreational industries seems to have gone from robust to threatened in a matter of three years.
The council approved a compromise motion that urged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to institute cutbacks in inshore cod landings in the range of 10 percent to 23 percent.
NOAA officials promised a quick decision, but also announced a second meeting next Friday in Portsmouth for an industry and NOAA working group on the cod crisis.
The Times, on multiple occasions over the past year, has referred to unattributed claims by small boat owners that offshore trawlers were taking enormous quantities of cod from Stellwagen in single tows while on the way in or out of the ports of Gloucester and New Bedford.
The dire 2011 inshore cod assessment repudiated the previous assessment from 2008, which showed the stock all but fully rebuilt.
Pierce on Wednesday described multiple schemes — made legal or viable in the catch share management system put in place beginning May 2010 — that have put enormous fishing pressure on the cod stocks of Stellwagen and other inshore fishing grounds.
These include the trading or selling of fishermen's catch shares from inshore to offshore boats and across gear types, and the accumulation of quota by the biggest and best capitalized owners.
"We need to address the transfer from small to larger boats," said Pierce, who argued that the system worked to tilt the playing field in favor of the best capitalized and major corporations.
"Sector vessels," members of fishing cooperatives that are allowed to participate in the catch share system, "are in a position to fish in the Gulf of Maine with no catch limits and so they can and do have (harmful) impact," he added.
Pierce's points were corroborated at the meeting by several members of Sector 10, which encompasses day boats in ports south of Gloucester to Cape Cod. They described big boat "pulse fishing" on Stellwagen in response to word that the cod were in.
"What's going on is an indictment of the catch share plan," said Sector 10 President Ed Barrett, who predicted that conservation measures in response to the cod crisis "will ensure that no small boats will be fishing next year."
Catch shares have been held out as a panacea to overfishing by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco; the Environmental Defense Fund, where she had been a board director prior to taking the reins of NOAA; the Walton Foundation, organized by Wal-Mart heirs; and other nonprofit foundations funding the transition to catch shares.
A closely related problem is the council's preliminary work gathering input on whether it needs to establish ownership limits on catch shares and other policies designed to encourage fleet diversity between large and smaller fishing businesses.
In Gloucester on Monday night, Pierce and a council colleague heard the leadership of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition and the separate but closely related Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund urge the government to let the catch share system solve problems of fleet diversity and consolidation.
Joe Orlando, who owns and operates the mid-sized trawler Padre Pio out of Gloucester and serves on the coalition board, said any limit to the trading of catch shares between small and large boats would freeze up the market.
"I should be able to buy and sell just like any corporation," said Orlando.
Jackie Odell, executive director of the coalition, which organized 12 of the 17 sectors in the catch share groundfishery, and Vito Giacalone, policy director of the coalition and president of the preservation fund permit bank, said the system created by NOAA for the groundfishery was not a bona fide allocation of the fishery and didn't involve the required referendum. So worrying about consolidation and accumulation caps under the current system makes no sense.
Pierce, however, referred them to National Standard 4 in the Magnuson-Stevens Act which requires all fishery plans to avoid allowing individuals, corporations, or other entities to acquire "an excessive share" of fishing privileges.
At Wednesday's council session, Odell and Giacalone supported a majority of councilors who overwhelmingly rejected Pierce's motions to urge NOAA to add to any interim cod provisions limiting boats to fishing in only one geographic region — either inshore, offshore or Southern New England.
In an emailed Thursday report to coalition members — a report leaked to the Times — Odell also noted that the observed and controversial practice of the big offshore boats starting their trawls outside the Gulf of Maine in Georges Bank — albeit landing fish from inside the Gulf and then reporting them to be Georges Bank fish — was legal.
"The law indicates that the fish caught be reported in the stock area where the fish is hauled up," she wrote to members. "If the council sees this as being a problem, then the regulation which directs this reporting should be revised."
In his presentation to the council, however, Pierce called the practice "misreporting."
"(It's a) misreporting of Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod," he said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.