Exactly two months after the Northeast groundfishery was acknowledged to have become a statutory disaster for the five New England states and New York, the regional fishery management council digs in today to debate and possibly vote on a suite of changes to the system — none with the potential to provide dramatic relief to an industry in dire straits.
Direct relief has been left to Congress; the congressional delegation has agreed to press for $100 million although no written plan exists for the use of that or any amount that may be included in the resolution of the federal budget and sequestration crisis, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.
If anything, the disaster is spreading from the groundfishery — which faces catch limits reduced by between 45 and 73 percent on Gulf of Maine Cod and multiple Georges Bank stocks, unprecedented since the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976 — to the scallop fishery, the nation’s No. 1 fishery based on sales value, and a fishery centered in New Bedford.
Scallopers and groundfishermen are linked together by yellowtail flounder. Yellowtail is a target for the groundfishing fleet, but is worth much more as bycatch in the $440 million scallop fishery. In recent years, yellowtail has become an increasingly worrisome problem for scientists, fishermen and, political leaders and government regulators, and today could become the pivotal topic as the council.
It is unlikely the council will take final action on catch limits for the 2013 fishing year; a special meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 20 to approve catch limits and tie up the loose ends to an adjustment to Amendment 16, which holds the framework for the controversial catch share management system that has transformed the groundfishery into a commodities market.
With catch reductions mandated by scientific stock assessments that have swung wildly and lost credibility, Amendment 16 has produced the disaster effect that Acting Commerce Secretary Robert Blank belatedly acknowledged in September. Since then, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, the lead advocate in the Obama administration for commodification, has remained silent about the failure of the system to produce a more profitable industry.
Her office did not respond to queries Tuesday about any written disaster relief plans.
“People are talking about things, but nothing is formulated,” said a NOAA spokeswoman.
“There is no money (at this point),” said NOAA’s Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Lobbyist-lawyers for the Fisheries Survival Fund, the primary scalloping industry organization, wrote last Monday to C.M. “Rip” Cunningham Jr., chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, urging decisions that would not constrain the lucrative scalloping effort by legal limits on the quantity of yellowtail.
“The council should, moreover, recognize that the scallop industry has created a high-end specialty market for large access area scallops that have opened foreign markets and sustained scallop prices and the fishing communities in which scallop vessels are home-ported,” wrote survival fund co-counsels David E. Frulla, Andrew E. Minkiewicz and Shaun M. Gehan. “The absence of these scallops will lead to product substitution and ultimately a decline in scallop prices.
“The only question is to whom the right of harvest will be allocated, an issue of economics,” they wrote. “The greatest overall benefit to the nation will be achieved by maintaining a viable scallop access area program.”