GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 9, 2011

Senate panel gives catch shares a quick study

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Not a discouraging word about catch shares was spoken Tuesday during what proved to be a U.S. Senate subcommittee's quick study of the impact of the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.

Even Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, who issued a searing indictment of government actions in constructing the nation's newest catch share program for the New England groundfishery, emphasized the flaws in the approach, committing "our fishery to a fool's errand," as he told the panel, were not inherent in the shift from effort to output control but in the engineering of it, he told a subpanel of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The full analysis, contained in a 14-page written statement to the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, centered on what Giacalone described as a widespread perception that the system was rigged on the inside to the benefit of industry groups privileged to be represented on a decision-making commission and allied with the green groups determined to install catch share programs across the nation.

The equity shift has made many losers and a few winners, which is the universal trademark of catch shares, as deeper pockets outbid the smaller players for shares.

Giacalone did not name names, but the most visible and prominent group in the campaign to convert U.S. fisheries to catch shares is the Environmental Defense Fund, whose former vice chairwoman, Jane Lubchenco now heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In his written testimony, Giacalone noted that the prototype for the New England system was forged in the small dissident group of fishermen organized as Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, then essentially forced onto the larger fleets in the hub ports by NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council.

In the shift from days at sea (or effort controls) to catch shares (or output controls), the previous permit currency denominated in days were replaced by new allocations based on past catch histories.

That fateful transition was finalized in 2009 by the New England council, comprising a mix of industry interests, EDF and the Cape Cod hook association, as well as another similar group of dissident fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine.

Like the Cape Cod group, Port Clyde enjoys foundation investment tied to advancing the catch share program. The two groups have accepted more than $4 million in grant funding to alter policies, according to a newly published data base study.

Giacalone argued in print that these forces in effect conspired to steal the fishery from the mass of commercial fishermen in the big ports - which are Gloucester, New Bedford and Pt. Judith, RI.

The theory of an improper, inside alliance to impose catch shares and dispossess the mass of fishermen lies at the core of a federal lawsuit, filed for dozens of fishing interests by the hub port cities, that is scheduled for a hearing in the Boston courtroom next Tuesday of U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel.

Giacalone buffered his indictment by noting "there are few human beings that care capable of self-inflicting wounds, when the alternative is to achieve instant wealth through a favorable initial allocation scheme."

Giacalone also distanced himself somewhat from his allegations by describing them as "unequivocally, the perception of "a great many" in New England.

The perception is that "the allocation choices made by the New England Council were a product of an exclusive and very closely coordinated working relationship among council members from the groundfish industry, the recreational fishery, the pro-catch share environmental community, and perhaps (NOAA) itself."

"This created a few big winners among those council members and their sectors," he said, " and many, many losers of those fishermen not privileged to be inside that inner circle."

He went on to write that the system was imposed by bypassing the referendum of active fishermen that was written into the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson, to which Reps. John Tierney for Gloucester and Barney Frank for New Bedford dissented.

"Surely," Giacalone wrote, "it must have been the fear and concern of precisely this type of result that caused members of the New England delegation to provide for a referendum."

He noted, that "had NOAA put the catch share system to a referendum, the council "would have avoided the level of culpability" attributed to them.

Members of the subcommittee, including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, went out of their way to press Eric Schwaab, NOAA's administrator of fisheries, for certainty that catch share rollouts would continue.

"Revenue has increased, and bycatch has fallen," Snowe said in her opening remarks. Otherwise, however, she was harshly critical of NOAA for operating a "wreckless, vindictive" law enforcement campaign against fishermen.

She joined subcommittee chairman Mark Begich of Alaska, Sen. John Kerry of Massacusetts, Sens. Ben Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Maria Cantwell of Washington State in lambasting NOAA for burdening fishermen with policies based on defective, weak and outdated science.

Most searing was Nelson who denounced unnecessary fishery closures in the southeast including all bottom fishing for 200 miles of water off George and Florida, a decision he said was based on "outdated" data, to protect red snapper.

"Yes, a lot of people suffered," he noted.

The widespread ardor for catch shares at the two-hour hearing was in stark contrast to sentiment in the U.S. House last month, when reprsentatives, racing through its version of the continuing budget resolution, voted 259-159 to halt funding for NOAA's new catch share initiatives. Sen. Cantwell went so far as to help publicize the push back against the House vote, a respone organized by EDF and its allies and proxies.

In her five minutes with the microphone, she held up a copy of an ad with the message "Catch shares work" on Politico, the daily web report on politics, soon after the House vote last month.

"Can you commit to catch share funding?" she asked as she waved a copy of the ad, which was purchased by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, a group which has benefited from catch shares and alliance with EDF.

EDF has transported members of the alliance to Washington to counter anti-catch share actions including the February 2010 mass protest at the side of the Capitol.

Dennis O'Hern, who organized an industry protest last month in St. Petersburg and sat in on the hearing, which he described it as largely a farce.

"One hundred and ten percent of our members oppose catch shares," he said in a telephone interview.

Panama City charter operator and industry leader Bob Zales, who helped organize the 2010 protest of about 5,000 fishermen and allies, recently described the Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance as "a mouthpiece" for EDF.

Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.