By Richard Gaines
---- — In May 2010, just at the moment NOAA put into operation a free trading commodity market for groundfishermen who were given an allocation and joined into a fishing cooperative, a perfect storm of constrictions began strangling the industry.
Hard catch limits and penalties merged with deadline-driven rebuilding requirements came into being just as science-based assessments of the stocks led to government decisions to constrict the availability of the commodity, all sending the industry spiraling into a crisis that many in industry, including Gloucester’s Vito Giacalone, saw coming.
As policy director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, Giacalone and other members of his organization had read the converging vectors of regulation and prepared as well as possible by establishing 13 sectors — the fishing cooperatives that aggregated fishermen largely by port, gear type and boat size — and digging in to make the best of the awful circumstances.
Now, with the crisis unfolding, with NOAA certain to mandate even more extreme constrictions in the harvesting of fish stocks next year, and with harvesters struggling to hang on by leasing out their allocation to bigger operators, the coalition has recommended against a corrective initiative — a move favored by many fishermen, non-government organizations and NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator, John Bullard.
The New England Fishery Management Council last week came to a consensus that the “disaster” made of the groundfishery required belated intervention — an attempt to preserve fleet diversity between big and little boats and regulate the free market to bar more of the $80 million industry from falling into a small number of big hands and external investors.
The council’s decision to undertake the writing of a proposed Amendment 18 — a full scale revision of Amendment 16, which includes the fishery’s catch share framework — does not imply that anything will happen quickly. But the debate has already begun.
Jackie Odell, the executive director of the seafood coalition, which represents more than half the boats in its 13 sectors of the 17 in the Northeast, believes the government should stand aside and let events unfold.
She argues that consolidation was well underway before the beginning of the catch share commodity trading market in 2010, and that the free exchange between boats is essential to keeping as much of the fleet at work as the availability of the resource allows.
No one, she said in a telephone interview Tuesday, has their ideal portfolio of fish, and must be allowed to buy and sell quota and permits if exiting is the choice. To attempt to constrain the market is to strangle it, she said.
“Everyone is trading everywhere,” she said. “If you start to restrict big boat trading with small boats, then you’ll strangle both big and small boats.”
Moreover, the coalition argued in its written comments to the council during the year-long scoping out of Amendment 18 that Amendment 16, the catch share system, was not a true allocation of the resource, as described in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
“Sector allocations are not permanent,” the coalition argued.
That position is under review by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals. In its argument to the court to validate the status quo — and against arguments by a large group of petitioners led by the port cities of Glocuester and New Bedford — the government contended incorrectly that NOAA had already written Amendment 18 and put controls on the free market.
Referring to the consolidation of the fleet, Joan Pepin, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, told the three-judge panel in September that “the problem is being taken seriously; it is being addressed, The process has been under way since the end of last year. It’s called Amendment 18.”
The plaintiffs, meanwhile, argued that, with Amendent 16, NOAA had created a bonafide limited access participation program. In thoe so-called LAPPS, the fishery is definitively allocated between participants, and they argued put into business without any effective controls.
The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a Gloucester based non-government organization that advocates for a community-based industry, has emerged as a prime challenger to the seafood coalition’s preference for the status quo.
NAMA’s written comments to the New England Fishery Management Council, the arm of NOAA that will tackle Amendment 18 in the year or years to come, sees consolidation as an accelerating evil — a view reflected in its support for a petition to “fight the big box boats.”
Many see the groundfishery as being restructured to make it fit into the global investor market.
“Since New England began its Catch Share management program in 2010 nearly 200 crew jobs have been lost, fishing pressure of larger offshore boats has increased in near shore waters and fewer entities are controlling more of the quota,” said Brett Tolley, the son and grandson of commercial fishermen and a community organizer for NAMA.
“Amendment 18 seeks to improve the sector system by limiting quota ownership and establishing fleet diversity protections. Similar measures have been successfully implemented in other fisheries,” Tolley said. “In Alaska, for example, the halibut/ sablefish fishery strictly limits individual ownership to 1/2 to 1 percent of the total stocks in an effort to ensure that owner-operator fishermen can continue to flourish in the fishery, rather than allow the fishery to consolidate into only a select few, very large fishing operations, as has happened in many other fisheries around the world.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, or at email@example.com.