By Richard Gaines
A mysterious, anonymously-generated petition is urging New England groundfishermen to sign and help convince Congress that there is broad-based support for catch shares, the Obama administration's fisheries policy that has been stalled by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Copies of the document began circulating on Monday, less than 48 hours after a bipartisan House majority voted 259-159 to shut off funding for new catch share programs on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Although the amendment exempts New England's groundfishery from the cutoff, a number of fishermen now operating under catch share rules as members of fishing cooperatives — or "sectors," under the catch share system — see a threat to their businesses in the petition, according to Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, she condemned the petition as "extremely disingenuous" and said she believed the effort was meant to stampede fishermen to defend and protect federal subsidies for the heavy operating costs in managing the cooperatives and funding the more extensive observer program required of the boats.
"My blood is boiling," said Gloucester Capt. Joe Orlando of the fishing vessel Padre Pio, "I would not sign it."
No organization or individuals are identified on the petition as the addressers. Instead, the instigators described themselves only as "Commercial fishermen in the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery," the modern descendant of the nation's first commercial fishery, which developed immediately after the first settlements were established along the New England coasts in the 17th century.
The conversion of the groundfishery into a catch share system, assigning catching rights that can be bought, sold or traded among fishermen or to outside investors and corporations, has come under the NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in 2009. The regimen is nearing the end of its first annual cycle of operation, and is widely seen as destabilizing port economies, making of winners and losers in the selection of the criteria for dividing the total catch into shares.
Winners are big boat businesses and smaller participants who choose to sell off their allocation and exit the market.
By most accounts, there are far more losers — smaller, independent boats and businesses — and catch share opponents than winners and program advocates.
As a rough reflection, about 5,000 fishermen and allies, mostly opponents of the virtual privatization system, rallied at the side the U.S. Capitol a year ago today. Days later, dozens of catch share advocates organized and financed by the Environmental Defense Fund were flown to Washington to counter-lobby in favor of the system.
Operating with more than $30 million in grants to press catch shares on all three coasts, EDF has been the nation's lead advocate for catch shares, and Lubchenco had been an Environmental Defense board officer before joining the Obama administration as NOAA administrator.
Other pockets of advocacy for catch shares include two small fishing groups, one in Maine and one Cape Cod, that took on funding from EDF, the Pew Environment Group and other environmental lobbyists to shore up their businesses and become platforms for NOAA's and the environmental groups' political and legal push.
Another larger pocket of support for catch shares is a Maine commercial fishing cooperative that features big off-shore draggers, whose owners have been acquiring catch shares.
Efforts to find the new petition organizers Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Based on the views and opinions in the text, which asserts that "sector management" is the only hope for groundfishermen, a number of fishermen said they suspected it was the work of one of the three industry groups active in lobbying for catch shares, or perhaps EDF itself.
Only the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association responded to queries from the Times.
"The petition isn't ours," said Eric Brazer Jr., the sector manager for the Cape Cod group. "But there are fishermen in town that support it."
David Goethel, a New Hampshire groundfisherman, member of the New England Fishery Management Council and a participant in a major federal lawsuit challenging the fairness of the system, said he saw in the petition "the same old lies" that infused the long debate over the construction of the landmark catch share system in New England, and helped spark the national resistance to them on the other coasts.
Goethel took issue with the claim that "many fishermen, including the undersigned, voluntarily joined the new sector management system because the days at sea system was — and remains — an unacceptable and economically inviable alternative."
Goethel countered that choice was voluntary only because the option left by the council was so distasteful.
"You volunteer to be shot at sunrise because it's preferable to being shot at sunset," said Goethel.
He also argued that the days-at-sea system had brought New England stocks back toward sustainability, and could have put an end to discards if the government decided to track time at sea by hours rather than days.
Under that proposal, fishermen who boated more than one day's limit could have simply accounted for the additional fish by using part — but not all — of a second day.
As it was, any boat that exceeded its day's limit would often discard the extra fish rather than wasting an entire second day to account for the overage. And the New England council rejected the more efficient option repeatedly, Goethel said.
As Goethel and Odell both noted, the council also rejected out of hand a third approach, proposed by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, that would have managed catches by giving stocks relative values and boats a total value allocation.
"Those were both viable options," Goethel said.
Richard Burgess, who owns a small group of inshore gillnetters, said he found the appeal to crews to be insidious because crews have fared badly under catch shares with revenues down by at least one third but are susceptible to pressure from boat owners.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.