By Richard Gaines
The federal government has abruptly cut by 50 percent the fishing opportunities for the small number of groundfishing permitholders who are not part of the new "catch share" system, and are fishing out of the so-called common pool.
The president of the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction described the action announced Wednesday as providing the coup de grace to the few fishermen still struggling to remain viable under the old Days at Sea regulatory rules.
And the executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which warned against the instability in empowering mid-year adjustments, agreed.
"Just another slash or nail in the coffin for anyone who remained in the common pool," said the coalition's Jackie Odell.
The common pool substratum is made up of fishermen who, for the most part, lacked the 10-year landings history needed for a viable share of the total allocation and a place in the catch share system now entering its fifth month.
The creation of a two-tiered system allowed the federal government to skirt a requirement in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that requires a proof by referendum that the industry sought to convert into a catch share system format.
The mid-season adjustment by the office of Patricia Kurkul, Gloucester-based regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was the latest in a series that shaved trip limits in an effort to "ensure a stable supply of groundfish throughout the fishing year," according to the text of the Tuesday announcement.
The announcement cited accelerated takings of the allocation to the common pool as reason for the change.
While landings through Aug. 21 by the common pool boats had already accounted for 88 percent of their annual allocation in Gulf of Maine Cod, 74 percent of Gulf of Maine winter flounder and 105 percent of the allocation of witch flounder, the allocations to the common pool were generally well less than 10 percent of the full allocation to the combined catch share boats working in "sectors" or harvesting cooperatives and common poolers.
The two-tiered system has held back the landings of the catch share holding boats because of severe reductions in the volume of fish allocated for use and barter within the newly created commodities market in fish quota.
Effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, common pool boats had their days at sea — a vestige of the previous regulatory regimen — cut in half.
By the system of time-keeping employed by NOAA, with a vessel charged with a full day at sea for any part of a day, the mid-season adjustment "will ensure the differential rate is effective in reducing effort sufficiently," the agency explained.
"The total trip length will be first rounded up to whole days," NOAA explained, "and then the differential rate will be applied."
By this system, a fishing trip of 13 hours would take 48 hours or two days off the permitted time allowed fishing.
"Two-to-one counting is just going to finish them off," said Larry Ciulla, president of the auction, which is the largest platform for the sale of seafood from the Gulf of Maine.
Ciulla cited the earlier action to cut the trip limit from 800 pounds of cod to 200 as crippling the common pool boats. That, by itself, he said, "made it virtually impossible (for common poolers) to make a living," he said.
"They gave the fishermen nothing to begin with," Ciulla said. "Give someone a drop of water to drink and then take it away, it doesn't really matter, they're going to die anyway."
So many advantages and preferences were loaded into the catch share sector side of the fishery last year — the pivotal votes were in June 2009 at a Portland meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council — that virtually the only permit holders choosing the common pool were holding permits that had little catch experience connected to it.
The key vote was to use 10-year catch histories as the sole determinant of the catch share allocation. Without a history, the permit would have no value either to sell or use.
Russell Sherman, who wrote an open letter President Obama in the Vineyard Gazette as part of a political communications effort sponsored by the seafood coalition, fished outside of groundfish during the long rebuilding period, now bearing fruit across the board.
"At a time when we should be hopeful about the future of our businesses, we are desperate instead," he wrote to the president, seeking his intervention. The president was vacationing on Martha's Vineyard at the time.
"We are being driven from our work and the fishery we have helped to rebuild," Sherman wrote.
Sherman joined a sector and did not choose to fish in the common pool, but his catch share was not enlarged by the non-groundfish he targeted during the rebuilding.
The seafood coalition, the largest industry group in New England with members in New York as well, advised the government last winter against allowing mid-season adjustments.
"Through no fault of their own," the coalition said in public comment, "vessel owners have no choice but to participate in the common pool. The vessel owners deserve to be given a reasonable and fair opportunity ... to survive in the groundfish fishery. This includes providing common pool fishery participants with some reasonable measure of certainty for planning their annual fishing operations."
The fishing season began May 1 and runs through April 30, 2011.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.