GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 20, 2011

NOAA chief extends monitoring payments

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

In a preliminary response to Sen. John Kerry's comprehensive reform agenda for the New England fisheries, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco on Thursday announced a commitment to continue paying the multi-million dollar cost of at-sea monitoring for commercial fishing boats.

The contracted employees are used on about one-third of the trips to record discards and inventory the catches.

Lubchenco also volunteered to give industry a say in the selection of the two top positions in the Northeast region — regional administrator and chief scientist at the Science Center at Woods Hole.

In a 2,500-word letter to Lubchenco on Wednesday — two weeks after hosting a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Boston — Kerry estimated the additional year's monitoring would cost $7.5 million.

Lubchenco's prepared statement did not price the subsidy, but she agreed to cover the monitoring costs through April 2013.

"We want to assure fishermen that NOAA will continue to fund the cost of at-sea monitoring for New England groundfish through April 30, 2013, the end of the 2012 fishng year," Lubchenco said in her prepared statement. "While the budget for fiscal 2012 is still uncertain, we are committed to securing this funding."

Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group, had warned that many sectors or fishing cooperatives would be unable to absorb the cost of monitors, especially sectors of the smaller and independent day boats.

She thanked Sens. Kerry, along with Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Maine Republicans, for protecting funding for the subsidy.

Government subsidies for monitors, which started with the onset of hard catch limits and catch share allocations and trading in May 2010, was scheduled to shift to industry next April 30. Fishermen and legislators have argued that the expense, an average of about $600 per day, would put more fishermen in the struggling industry out of business.

"It's good that NOAA is finally recognizing the high costs of their burdensome regulations," said Sen. Scott Brown. "Rather than just covering them up with another year of funding, NOAA should rescind costly catch shares compliance requirements that are costing us jobs and crushing our fishing industry."

Beyond the initial actions announced Wednesday, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said, "We will be providing a complete response to other issues raised in Senator Kerry's letter in the near future."

The release came from NOAA just hours after Kerry's office issued its letter at midday Wednesday.

Intense back-channel discussions between Kerry and Lubchenco's offices had been were underway even before the field hearing in Boston, creating a backdrop for the tightly spaced announcements Wednesday.

Kerry's office reportedly gave Lubchenco less than 48 hours notice before sending to her and releasing to the press his public to-do list .

At its core is a diplomatically phrased challenge — not quite an ultimatum — that called on Lubchenco to issue a "disaster declaration" before the end of the month based on data to be produced by the state about the harmful impacts of the catch share regimen on the groundfishery since it began in May 2010.

The argument about whether the catch share commodification of the groundfishery has brought on a bona fide economic crisis has raged for nearly a year, with the industry, its congressional and senate representatives, social scientists academics and Gov. Deval Patrick attempting to give the Obama administration hard evidence that the catch shares system, has shifted more control and quota into the largest hands, marginalizing mom-and-pop fishing businesses.

The catch share dynamics fit Lubchenco's goal to see a "sizable fraction" of the fleet eliminated, and has rankled a bipartisan coalition of elected leaders of port districts.

Democratic Mayor Carolyn Kirk's videotaped interview following the Kerry hearing — featuring mournful disappointment in a job-destroying fisheries policy of the Democratic president whose inauguration she attended — was recited on the floor of the U.S. Senate Wednesday by the minority leader, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell.

"Overzealous enforcement of brutal fishing regulations is destroying jobs and forcing smaller players out of the business," was McConnell's summary of Kirk's complaint.

Many small boat businesses have elected to become "armchair" fishermen, leasing and selling their allocations, according to an incomplete case study of a group of 32 mom-and-pop owner-operated day boat businesses conducted for the governor.

Summarized for the Senate Commerce Committee by Marine Fisheries Director Paul Diodati, the study of the boats in what is known as Sector 10 found the "catch share system has caused a significant reduction of revenues among fewer vessels, and has caused severe economic strain among the majority of fishermen."

In her Senate committee testimony, Lubchenco described the consolidation as a "continuation" of a longstanding trend, but also told the committee she would be "delighted to receive the information that we need to document the declines, to have the secretary (of commerce) declare a disaster."

The final report on the economic impact of the catch share experience is not expected to be released this week, a spokeswoman for Diodati said Thursday.

To give industry input in the selection of a successor to Patricia Kurkul, the retiring regional administrator, and a head of the science center at Woods Hole, Lubchenco announced a series of steps. These include encouraging industry to nominate candidates and putting an outsider on the interview panels.

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