GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 25, 2011

Maine-based power group hatched pro-catch-share drive

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The pro-catch share petition circulated anonymously in the intensifying congressional debate over the Obama administration's plan to commodify wild fish stocks was written by Maggie Raymond, an industry executive with the region's largest "sector" or fishing cooperative, according to a document obtained Friday by the Times.

The Sustainable Harvest sector has unmatched links to the rule-making council and is also the biggest player in the new groundfish-stocks market.

In an e-mail to members of the sector, Raymond said she drafted the petition at the request of Mike Leary, a Sustainable Harvest member and an appointee to the New England Fishery Management Council, which wrote the rules for the transformation of the $60 million groundfishery into a commodities market, with fishermen working off an allotted catch but encouraged to buy, sell or trade their "catch shares" among themselves or to outside investment interests.

"Mike Leary asked me to put together the attached letter," Raymond wrote on Monday. "He is going to try to get a bunch of signatures. Can you get your people you know (owners/crews) to sign? How long would that take?"

Raymond and Leary did not return calls or respond to e-mail queries regarding to decision not to assert authoriship.

Outside the Sustainable Harvest sector, most fishermen who received the anonymous petition and were interviewed by the Times said they had no intention of signing it, based on the catch share system's record of steering control of America's fisheries into fewer and larger corporate hands, while driving out smaller, independent boats.

The petition asks "vessel owners, operators and crew" to urge Congress to continue to support the sector/catch share system.

It was drafted and circulated in the aftermath of the 259-159 vote in the U.S. House last Saturday for a budget amendment put forward by Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who represents the Outer Banks. The Jones Amendment calls for freezing spending on all future catch share programs, including those pegged for New England monkfish and South Atlantic snapper, grouper and golden crabs.

Opposition to the proposals and support for Jones' amendment is broad-based, though there is strong support in some locales associated with the field organizations of the Environmental Defense Fund, the nation's leading catch shares cheerleader.

The Jones amendment would not effect subsidies for the New England system that is now nearing the end of its first year and has already sparked a powerful consolidation of shares and permits into the largest businesses.

The economic destabilization of the ports of Gloucester and New Bedford helped foment a pending federal lawsuit challenging the system's constitutionality and fairness.

Last weekend's federal House vote on the Jones proposal insured fierce lobbying by pro-catch share forces to protect the policy initiative introduced by Jane Lubchenco, the marine scientist and former Environmental Defense Fund board officer selected by President Obama to head NOAA.

EDF, known for its faith in markets and its alliances with Wal-Mart, Wall Street and the oil industry, has been promoting catch shares for many years as a conservation tool and investment opportunity.

NOAA has asked for $54 million for the expansion of the 14 existing catch share fisheries. The fate of Jones' budget freezing amendment in the Senate is uncertain.

Based in Maine, the Sustainable Harvest sector is comprised of 38 boats, mostly trawlers which have accumulated 106 permits, adding to its unmatched concentration of equity in the new market, according to a NOAA Federal Register filing Friday.

The Sustainable Harvest sector also has unmatched impact on the council rule-making process.

Of the 16 sectors, only Sustainable Harvest has two council seats. Along with Leary, Jim Odlin, who operates the Atlantic Trawling Fishing Co. in Portland, Maine, is also both a member of the sector and the council, an arm of NOAA Fisheries.

It was that council that chose an ll-year catch history as the sole criterion for determining the allocations of fishermen's catch — insuring that the Sustainable Harvest boats, which tend to be larger off-shore vessels that fished consistently hard — got the lion's share when the total catch was split up.

Leary, Odlin, Raymond and a small delegation of fishermen from other New England states, were granted a private audience with top NOAA officials last December to counter criticism of the catch share regimen from the main ports of Gloucester, New Bedford and Pt. Judith, R.I.

The meeting was organized by the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, a group formed in Chatham that has made financial and political alliances with the Pew Environment Group and EDF groups, in the forefront of advocacy for commodifying the groundfishery.

The chairman of the New England council, John Pappalardo, is the former policy director and now chief executive of the Cape Cod hook fishermen, who, in recent years, have largely given up hook fishing for gillnetting. The Cape group has also come under fire by the NGO Oceana for profiteering in the sale of catch share rights to the Sustainable Harvest sector whose primary method, dragging, is anathama to the Cape Cod fishermen and many conservation groups.

"Many of the people who support sectors do so because they fared very well under the allocation scheme," said New Hampshire fisherman David Goethel, who as a council member cast the only vote against the catch share regimen. "The question I would ask the supporters of the petition is if they would still support sector management if every fishermen had been given an equal share of the pie?"

"This is about the winners doing away with the losers," said Capt. Joe Orlando of the Padre Pio, a Gloucester trawler.

Orlando also reiterated a longstanding complaint that the sector/catch share system is biased in favor of the boats that never averred from groundfish during the past 15 years of tenuous rebuilding, and against the fishermen who took the government's advice and shifted focus to allow the ground fish stocks to rebound.

The Sustainable Harvest sector is also in line to receive rights to catch the most fish, according to the filing of sector plans for the 2011 fishing year, which begins May 1.

Leary and his colleagues will receive the largest shares of six of the 14 stocks in the system, including 29 percent of Georges Bank haddock, 40 percent of Gulf of Maine haddock, 40 percent of plaice, 34 percent of gray sole (witch flounder), 48 percent of redfish, 51 percent of white hake and 39 percent of pollock.

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