, Gloucester, MA

November 19, 2012

Fish council eyes limits on catch shares

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — NOAA’s regional fishery management council has decided to write a program of controls next year to protect the diversity of the groundfishing fleet between big and smaller boats and protect against monopolization of the catch share commodity trading system that has governed it since 2010.

The elevation of Amendment 18 — the ‘“fleet diversity and accumulation caps” action — to a top priority was confirmed at the end of last week’s three-day council meeting in Newport, R.I.

In support was a broad cross section of interests including a number of fishermen, NOAA’s regional administrator, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pew Environment Group, Food & Water Watch and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance — which is based in Gloucester and helped found the Cape Ann Fresh Catch program. But one entity not supporting any potential changes is the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest industry group, which represents 12 of the 17 catch share sectors or fishing cooperatives, covering more than 300 members.

”We don’t feel that the purpose and intent of Amendment 18 has been clearly defined,” Jackie Odell, executive director of the coalition, said in a telephone interview Monday.

She also questioned the motives of the advocates.

”Where were all these people (during the creation of Amendment 16 which set up the catch share commodity trading and sector system in 2009?” Odell said. “No one has described to us what the problem is,”

The system took effect in May 2010 and — combined with constrictions on landings from NOAA science center assessments and regulatory decisions to hold down allocations through the governing Magnuson-Stevens Act — has brought the groundfishery to an economic “disaster” or “failure,” according to a finding by the acting commerce secretary in September. The disaster declaration was based on two socio-economic studies and a petition by Gov. Deval Patrick in November 2011.

NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard told the council last Thursday that, in the listening sessions he had with stakeholders from Maine to North Carolina in the summer after he was appointed “Amendment 18 or the issues behind Amendment 18 were among the most frequently raised issues that came up maybe more than anything other than skepticism of (NOAA) science. We need to attend to it.”

The NOAA Science Center is said to be close to releasing a comprehensive, socio-economic report on the groundfishery as of 2011, the second year of catch share trading by fishermen organized into the 17 business cooperatives aligned by gear type, port and boat size. But data published by NOAA in September already shows dayboat employment shrinking, while the numbers of jobs on the larger trip boats grew.

The Science Center report shows that, in boats of 50 feet and smaller, typically operated by a crew of one to three and working inshore waters, regional employment fell from 974 positions in 2010 to 897 in 2011, a decline of 8.4 percent.

Yet, boats of 75 feet and above — trip boats which take crews of five or more to Georges Bank for a week or longer —expanded employment mildly, showing crew positions up from 1,215 to 1,231, an increase of 1.3 percent.

These sketchy figures fit into the picture of an industry re-engineered to consolidate, following a blueprint created by the Environment Defense Fund and brought into the Obama administration by the president’s decision to name EDF vice chairwoman Jane Lubchenco to head NOAA.

The council complied in June 2009 but in its rush, it neglected to write any controls on the accumulation of quota or language to protect fleet diversity.

Until the decision at the council last Thursday, the New England Regional Fishery Management Council had kept hands off the commodity trading system; in November 2011, it decided it had better things and bigger problems to deal with than attempting to write limits or rules for what amounts to a free market pseudo Limited Access Participation Program — or LAPP.

Had the council not attempted to make the system legally distinct from a LAPP — largely by allowing fishermen to continue in the effort-control regimen riddled chosen by those who did not have meaningful catch history and therefore were not allocated enough catch shares to succeed — NOAA would have been required to put Amendment 16 to a referendum of fishermen, based on language written into the Magnuson reauthorization in 2006.

A large cross section of fishing interests led by the ports of Gloucester and New Bedford have challenged Amendment 16’s legality, claiming the system is indeed a limited access program and was thus created illegally. The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston heard arguments in September and is expected to issue a ruling in December or January, attorneys acquainted with the court’s patterns have predicted.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition did not join the legal challenge to Amendment 16, and, in November 2011 Odell helped write a letter that was signed by 109 fishermen and called for regulatory stability under the current system.

The council’s vote to attempt to write limits on accumulation of quota and ensure fleet diversity was hailed by the North Atlantic Marine Alliance.

“The vote signals the council’s commitment to both ensure that opportunities exist for future generations of fishermen to target cod, haddock, hake and flounders, and to prevent the concentration of fishery access into fewer hands,” the organization said in a prepared statement.

“This vote comes on the heels of a recent NOAA announcement declaring the New England groundfishery a federal disaster,” the alliance said. “The disaster will result in dramatic cuts in the allowable catch which likely will lead to fleet consolidation.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at