The higher catch limits for the New England groundfish complex announced this week by U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke were actually set by the federal regional fishery management council in 2009 in the final construction of Amendment 16, the regulatory regimen.
And while the secretary was correct in noting that catch limits generally were being increased, catch limits on two major stocks — haddock and pollock — were severely reduced. So, the total allowable catch for the groundfishing fleet in all stocks will be lower by 9.1 percent in the fishing year that begins May 1, documents indicate.
The reduced catch limits were not mentioned by Locke in his prepared statement, nor did he note that the combined limit for all stocks would be lower.
Based on figures provided by the Northeast regional office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the industry will be allowed to catch 76,330 metric tons of mixed groundfish in the coming year, compared to the 84,106 metric tons allowed in the current year.
While limits on 17 stocks will be marginally higher, the cut in haddock was 24.4 percent — from 41,265 metric tons to 31,627 metric tons — and pollock was cut by 16 percent, from 16,553 metric tons to 13,952 metric tons.
While the reported increases were announced with a flourish, fishermen scoffed at the plan, saying the higher catch limits had long been a fait accompli and were largely irrelevant since the fleet has not come close to landing the slightly lesser catch limits for the fishing year ending April 30.
"Actually, this year's catch rates for this time period are slightly below last year," NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said in an e-mail to the Times.
An arm of the federal government that writes policy for administration approval, the New England Fishery Management Council in 2009 proposed two years of catch limits while completing a radical reengineering of the industry that brought about the tradeable catch share management system.
The two years of proposed catch limits required adoption by the secretary to make them legal, but the fishing fleet was informed at the time of the catch levels they could expect barring unforeseen events, according Mooney-Seus.
Richard Burgess, who holds 11 groundfishing permits and owns three gillnet dayboat working out of Gloucester, told the Times he has been frustrated to hear how fortunate the industry should be to get the higher catch limits.
"There's nothing new in this, and the higher limits are meaningless anyway," he said.
"Starting May 1," secretary Locke said in a press release, "we will raise catch limits for 12 important groundfish stocks." The release was accompanied by a major public relations rollout by the NOAA communications office.
Such announcements of regulatory decisions other than major policy normally are issued not from the office of the Secretary of Commerce but from NOAA. In the Obama administration, such releases have usually been announced by the administrator, Jane Lubchenco, or by Eric Schwaab, who heads NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
Locke faces a confirmation hearing later this year on his nomination, which has not be formalized by President Obama, to be the next ambassador to China, and has been striving to improve his standing with Congress and the fishing industry.
Earlier this year, after he refused to credit as valid a scientific report to him by Gov. Deval Patrick which purported to show that Amendment 16, which converted the common groundfish resources into commodities tradeable by fishermen organized into quasi voluntary fishing cooperatives or "sectors," Locke was publicly criticized by the governor, Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank, among other key Obama allies in Congress.
Frank described Locke as a weakling who seemed captive to Lubchenco and environmental ideologues.
Kerry, who will preside at the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on the still unofficial Locke nomination, wrote in congressional testimony that Amendment 16 had triggered an economic disaster for the ports of New England due to hyper consolidation and control of fishing capacity in fewer highly capitalized companies while many small fishermen were put off the water.
"Due to an allocation schematic that left many of the fishermen with woefully small allocations making them unable to fish or afford to lease quota that would enable them to fish," Kerry wrote to Senate Commerce Committee's oceans and fisheries subcommittee, "the bottom 90 percent of the fleet" was been weakened by while "the top 10 percent" has grown stronger.
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Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.