By Richard Gaines
---- — The widely used rationale for the drastic cuts in groundfish landings — that the waters of the North Atlantic hold far fewer fish than previously thought — is being challenged by two of Gloucester’s best known fishermen, Joe Orlando and Northeast Seafood Coalition policy leader Vito Giacalone.
NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard and Peter Shelley, the senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation, point to the table from the NOAA Science Center showing participants in the Northeast groundfishery failed last year to catch anything close to their allocation in virtually every one of the 20 stocks as a sign that the ecosystem was so weak the fishermen could not find enough fish to catch. Both Bullard and Shelley ascribed special significance to the fact that fishermen were able to take about two thirds of the allocation in Gulf of Maine cod, the most important fish for the inshore fleet of day boats.
Shelley has gone further, criticizing NOAA and the New England Regional Council for caving to political pressure; he said the right action would have been to close the inshore cod fishery completely.
Bullard, meanwhile, has said he largely based his decision against granting the industry a second year of interim relief — with lesser cuts in Gulf cod than the 78 percent he announced last Tuesday — on what he says is evidence that there was less cod to catch than allocated.
But Orlando, owner and captain of the 65-foot trawler Padre Pio and president of the Gloucester trawl sector under NOAA’s controversial catch share management system, is citing multiple flaws in the format — notably pointing out that each fisherman’s allocations cover multiple stocks, and that that fishing stops for the year when any allocation of any stock in the portfolio is caught.
With allocations based on past catch history, each fisherman in the catch share sector system found allocations in certain stocks were very small, with others very high. But because the stocks all mix together, each fisherman invariably found he had to avoid certain stocks, or go over the top and be shut down. That, in turn, has prevented many fishermen from targeting the more popular stocks, like Gulf of Maine cod.
Orlando said the need to avoid reaching his limit on the choke stocks in his portfolio constrained his fishing for stocks of which he was granted a large allocation.
”If I’d caught all my yellowtail in June, I’d have been shut down in August,” he said. “When species had been around in the past, we pounded them. Now, we can’t. Now you have to juggle and jiggile.”
Giacalone explained that a key indicator of the industry being constrained by low quota allocations are the lease costs for any particular stock. If quota allocations are a constraint the average lease cost tends to be higher. The worse the constraint is the closer that lease cost is to the full ex-vessel value a fishermen receives when landing the fish. In extreme examples, the lease cost is the same or higher than the expected value of selling the fish.
“This happens on choke stocks that are needed in order for fishermen to access other stocks,” he said. “Without sufficient quota to cover the bycatch of the choke stock, a fishermen can not earn a living catching the more abundant stocks.
“This indicator has been completely overlooked,” Giacalone said, “by those who continue to point to the 2012 fleet under harvest of the GOM cod allowable catch as being conclusive evidence that the ‘cod are gone and therefore the science has got it right.’”
“Their argument is full of holes — and I accuse them all of being intentionally misleading with this argument because they are unwilling to offer the fact that in 2010, 2011 and even the start of the 2012 fishing year, lease costs for GOM cod averaged over $1.25. (That’s) greater than 50 percent of the average day boat price of cod to fishermen.
“Add in the assumed discard rate and the costs of running a fishing vessel and the average trip boat price paid to offshore vessels made leasing GOM cod a breakeven or losing proposition,” he said. “The reality is that it was primarily the day boat fleet that could afford to make a go at leasing GOM cod for $1.25 or more because their operating costs are less and they receive a premium price at the dock for their fish.
Giacalone said the quotas in 2010 and 2011 were well over 8,000 metric tons, yet the cost of leasing GOM cod peaked at $1.50 in that period. When the interim measures reduced the 2012 quota to 6.700 metric tons, he said, lease costs on GOM cod started out well over $1.00.
“It was not until the second quarter of the fishing year that lease values began to plummet due to the low catch rates that occurred as the fish left the area,” he added, “... which, by the way, was bound to happen sooner or later due to the natural cycles.”
“Now you tell me who is fudging the numbers and why?,” Giacalone said. “It’s time Bullard and the ENGO (Environmental non-government organization) community be called out on these statistical facts — and why they choose to use just one side and one year of the data to paint the picture they so desire to defend.”
Orlando also noted that his sector of about 30 trawlers was allocated 440,247 pounds of yellowtail, and ended the year, thanks to leasing, landing 551,474 pounds. Overall, the industry landed 1,064 pounds of Gulf of Mane and Cape Cod yellowtail.
Orlando also reported that his sector was allocated 1,485,014 pounds of Gulf of Maine cod, and the boats landed 1,316,985 pounds of the prized fish, whose stock size and the fishing pressure on it have become the symbolic representative of the crisis. Both Bullard and Shelley have declared the landings of about two thirds of the allocation as a sign of dangerous decline in the best known fish in the North Atlantic.
”Do those statistics indicate that the stocks are in trouble?” he asked. “The whole in-shore fleet could have caught their whole allocation for the year in March.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.