By Richard Gaines
Gloucester's groundfishing fishing fleet lost 21 vessels last year and now numbers just 75 working boats, while regionally, the industry continued to consolidate, according to a government report Wednesday.
From Maine to Montauk, N.Y., the number of working groundfishing boats dropped 20 percent, from 566 to 450 active vessels.
The total number of New England crew positions also dropped, but only by 6.8 percent, from 2,442 to 2,277 because some groundfishing boats shifted to target other forms of seafood.
Crew positions by port were not available. But, in all forms of fishing, Gloucester had a fleet of 110 boats, a loss of three from 2009 and 14 from 2007, while regionally, the number of active commercial fishing boats dropped from 973 to 900.
The report showed that more revenue was attributed to the top earning vessels while the fleet continued to shrink, and there were fewer jobs for fishermen on the boats.
"There has been an increasing concentration of groundfish gross revenues among top earning vessels, as gross revenues have become consolidated on fewer vessels," the report said. "About 68 percent of gross revenues from groundfish sales during 2007 to 2009 resulted from landings by 20 percent of active groundfish vessels.
"In 2010," the report continued, "20 percent of vessels accounted for 80 percent of the gross revenues from groundfish sales."
Those were also among the key findings in the first official analysis of the first full year of New England fishing under Amendment 16, the radical and controversial transformation of the industry into a catch share management system, which features trading in allocated shares of groundfish among fishing boats, and to outside investors.
That system was introduced together with statutorily mandated catch limits — with those limits dramatically reduced across the board by another statutory mandate to end alleged overfishing by 2014.
Rolled out simultaneously, the multiple changes forced the industry to reorganize and fish less and more efficiently — but the system has led to the industry shedding jobs and boats, while the playing field tilted more toward the larger operations and better capitalized players. The number of groundfishing trips, for example, was off by 46.5 percent from 26,032 to only 14,045.
The report by social scientists at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole confirmed earlier anecdotal reports that the combination of changes wrought to the fishery was making it smaller and top heavy.
The stated goal of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has been to see a "sizeable fraction" of the fleet removed from commerce, though the writing of Amendment 16 by the New England Fishery Management Council was virtually complete before she was appointed by President Obama.
"Amendment 16 implemented a number of measures that facilitated the consolidation of fishing effort onto fewer active fishing vessels as a means to reduce the operational expenses for owners of multiple permits," the report stated.
The size of the fleet shrank by 17 percent from 2007 through 2010, and 8 percent of that — 73 vessels — stopped fishing in the first year of Amendment 16.
Total gross revenues for the industry — including New England ports as well as New York/Long Island's — climbed by 9.8 percent from 2009 to 2010 to $297.7 million, due to a shift of effort away from groundfish to non-groundfish.
Groundfish revenues regionwide were off by 2 percent to $83.3 million, while non-groundfish landings were up 15 percent to $214.4 million, as fishermen sought seafood not so intensely regulated as the stocks in rebuilding regimens.
But in multiple places, the authors — Andrew Kitts, Evan Bing-Sawyer, Matthew McPherson, Julia Olson and John Walden — cautioned that, without considering operating costs and costs associated with organizing the sectors and monitoring the trips and the impact of transactional costs associated with the trading of catch shares, drawing conclusions about the relative strength of the fishery operating under the new dynamics and rules was impossible.
"An expanded version of this report scheduled to be released in the fall of 2011 will include analyses of these factors," the authors wrote.
Last winter, National Marine Fisheries Service Administrator Eric Schwaab cited partial year revenue figures to argue that the system was not causing economic hardships as Gov. Deval Patrick, social scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney, and Mayors Scott Lang of New Bedford and Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester had argued.
The industry advocates had been asking for emergency allocations of groundfish, but were denied by Schwaab in concert with then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who is now ambassador to China.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3446, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.