, Gloucester, MA

November 20, 2012

Editorial: Federal quota caps needed to protect small-boat fishermen

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The idea of clamping new government limits or regulations on private sector businesses is always a dicey proposition at best.

And that’s been the case within the commercial fishing industry, which is literally choking under government regulations and such excessive enforcement that the Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s office cited NOAA law enforcement in a variety of cases of wrongdoing — so much so that Commerce officials had to issue a formal apology to fishermen and hand over more than $600,000 in government reparations.

Now, however, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco and the New England Fishery Management Council have made such a mess of the New England groundfishery through Lubchenco’s and Environmental Defense’s beloved catch share management system that they have literally driven the industry to the point of economic “disaster” — conceded a Commerce Department announcement in September.

And, to their credit, NOAA regional administrator John Bullard, environmental groups, Gloucester’s Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, and a number of fishermen realize at least some steps that must be taken to fix it. That’s to put so-called accumulation caps on the amount of quota or “catch shares” any fishing business can control, or perhaps take other actions, such as requiring on-board ownership presence at all times or some other limits that can keep the bigger businesses from gobbling the shares of smaller, independent boats that can no longer compete.

That’s right: given the current state of the New England groundfishery — the biggest venue for the Gloucester fleet — federal officials have no choice but to put new limits, new regulations on an industry that must be rescued from itself.

That should not, of course, be the usual government course of action in dealing with most businesses. And Jackie Odell, director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, makes a valid point in suggesting that the feds should essentially let the free market play out — just as it should in virtually every other field.

But there’s a catch. In this case, the runaway economic system that’s now killing waterfront jobs, driving out small businesses, and consolidating more and more fishing quota and fishermen’s “catch shares” in the hands of fewer and bigger fishing corporations didn’t evolve as a free market on its own. It was created by the government itself thanks to Lubchenco’s catch share policies drawn from her work with EDF, the same folks who brought us the corporately-driven “cap and trade” approach to confronting air pollution.

Beyond that, let’s also remember that, in setting up this monopoly-building commodities trade system, NOAA also controls the available “product” as well, setting tight limits on fishermen’s total allowable catch, so that even when smaller, family-run boats do try to remain competitive, their share of the quota and the allowable catch is undercut by the bigger, more dominant boats and corporations – up to and including the big boats reportedly swooping in to scoop up inshore cod on Stellwagen Bank, a venue heretofore left to the smaller boats and businesses.

It’s those scenarios that make it clear that NOAA’s and the New England Council’s Amendent 16 and catch share system— while clearly working for Lubchenco and her shameful recessionary goal of fleet consolidation — is indeed creating a disaster for fishermen and New England’s fishing communities. And NOAA and Commerce officials owe it to those communities — including Gloucester — to undo the damage.

Over a longer haul, that should mean the abolition and abandonment of the catch share system as we know it. But in the short term, that must mean clamping accumulation limits on the amount of quota any company can control, or taking other steps to ensure that smaller, independent fishermen are not driven out of business by their own government.

Each day the status quo remains in place is another step in a path to an even deeper economic fishery disaster.