Nearing the end of the first fishing cycle conducted under a radically new management and allocation system, the federal government has laid the groundwork for limiting excessive accumulation of catch privileges, and protecting the interests of smaller, independent boats struggling to stay economically afloat.
A signal of pending action to protect the diversity of the groundfishing industry — perhaps by port-community, gear type and vessel size, or some combination — came Thursday with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's announcement that it had set Thursday, April 7, as a "control date."
The decision puts the industry on notice that pre-existing and post-existing policies that might be written in the future could vary — and that permit acquisitions made after the date "may be treated differently than those acquired before the date," according to the NOAA announcement.
The New England Fishery Management Council, which asked NOAA in January to establish a control date, is scheduled, at its late April meeting in Mystic, Conn., to resume discussing if and how the government intends to attempt to protect fleet diversity.
"We meant to put people on notice that any permit consolidation could be treated differently," said New Hampshire Councilor David Goethel, who made motions both for the control date and another directing completion of a draft white paper on fleet diversity.
"We might do something, we might not," he said.
"We are concerned," he said, but for now, "We don't have what I'd call hard data — just a general feeling of unease. The council has been requesting information that (NOAA) has been trying to compile on who owns what and it is more complicated than we thought."
Goethel predicted that the question of fleet diversity "will be discussed at every meeting in the foreseeable future."
There is no consensus on what kind or even whether limits on fleet diversity should be written, Goethel said.
Among the skeptics is Vito Giacalone, the policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which created 12 fishing cooperatives or sectors to participate in the catch share system that the council had been writing for more than three years before the system was approved in 2009.
The final steps were spurred by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, who, before her nomination by President Obama, had been an officer of the Environmental Defense Fund, which promoted catch shares as an economic stimulus and conservation measure.
Amendment 16, which introduced catch shares of severely diminished allocations to sectors, essentially encouraged a fishery commodities market without restrictions or controls, such as limits on how much catch allocation any one party can hold.
And with the current fishing year ending on April 30, there remains a fierce debate raging between sections of the industry and between ports and the government about the impact of catch shares.
A federal lawsuit filed by a broad alliance of fishing interests and the ports of Gloucester and New Bedford against NOAA alleges that Amendment 16 violated provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by unfairly allocating the limited volume of groundfish catch shares.
The suit pivots on the fundamental dispute over whether the new system was an de facto granting of fishing rights, or merely a short-term allocation of that quota.
Giacalone said he doubts the need for —n or the capacity of — the government to write effective rules to protect fleet diversity. He also noted that the catch shares for groundfish prevent permit owners from subdividing their shares to trade one species while holding onto the rest.
"Where the allocations are connected, how could yo do it fairly? It just won't work," he said.
"NOAA, along with fishermen and members of Congress, is concerned about the need to maintain fleet diversity, fishery infrastructure and fishing ports throughout the Northeast," said Patricia Kurkul, NOAA's Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator.