As a congressional coalition prepared a personal appeal to the Secretary of Commerce to loosen catch limits reportedly strangling the New England groundfish industry under a new industry regulatory model, an Internet trade publication put out a report Tuesday that debunked some of the industry's concerns.
Seafoodnews.com accused New Bedford's Carlos Raphael, owner of 29 boats in one of New England's largest fleets, of crying "crocodile tears" in arguing for the need for liberalized allocations.
And while he was at it, John Sackton, Seafoodnews.com's editor and publisher, announced that "contrary to reports of disaster, landings were up 15 percent across the region."
The news, if true, would undercut the effort of the fishing industry's congressional advocates along the coast from New York to New Hampshire to leverage relief for their boats and businesses.
If true, the news also would buttress the claims by the Environmental Defense Fund and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco — a former vice-chair of the EDF board — for the new catch share business model that debuted in New England May 1.
Plus, the notion that landings were up so much — by 15 percent, according to Sackton's initial reports — seemed dramatic, especially in light of reports from Gloucester and New Bedford at the end of last week that fishermen were reacting to the new system by staying on the docks.
The problem was Sackton's "facts" and landing reports weren't true. He had apparently misunderstood a government printout and confused a four-month, year-to-date total of landings in Gloucester and New Bedford for a single-week total. There was no dramatic sign of a revitalized industry. The 15 percent increase in landings was more like 4 percent, and the time frame included at least some landings prior to May 1.
After the Times reviewed Seafoodnews.com's report and brought the mistake to Sackton's attention, he confirmed the mistake and fixed the numbers. But he did not alter his analysis, essentially echoing the EDF and NOAA party line.
But there was another problem with Sackton's report. He wrote it without mentioning that he recently served as a paid agent of EDF regarding reports on catch shares.
Sackton and EDF, in response to questions from the Times, admitted months ago that the environmental giant had made a contract for an undisclosed amount for Sackton to provide research services to EDF on the catch share issue. Julie Wormser, EDF's New England director for oceans policy, said that Sackton was paid for some 20 hours of catch-share research.
Questions about Sackton's journalistic independence first arose after he acted as a facilitator or master of ceremonies — without disclosing the relationship — for a November 2009 meeting at The Gloucester House. The visit here was part of a tour sponsored by EDF that brought Alaskans with mostly positive things to say about catch shares to fishermen from New Bedford, Gloucester and Portland.
To the present, EDF and messages through Sackton's writing and reporting have remained in sync. Tuesday, while he recalibrated the percentage gain in reported landings, he left unchanged his finding that the fishing industry was wrong and the advocates of catch shares were right.
Soon after the Seafood.com report went up on the Web Tuesday, EDF was "tweeting" it with characteristic zeal.
"In the first week of the New England catch share program," wrote Diane Regas, EDF's vice president for oceans, "a local report shows landings up, discards down, profit drivers up (for example value of catch per trip). John Sackton reports today on some specific experiences that fishermen are having."
"Sackton's report goes straight to the rhetoric (this is a disaster) vs. the reality (it's working pretty well so far)," Regas concluded before linking to the EDF website which reproduced the Sackton piece in its entirety. "Nobody expects that the system is perfect yet," she added, "but it's definitely time to tone down the rhetoric!"
Regas declined Wednesday to be interviewed by the Times. In a written response to questions submitted by the Times, she said she saw no relevance between what she called EDF's short-term contract with Sackton and his subsequent reporting on the topic.
In his own e-mail response to questions from the Times, Sackton conceded Wednesday that "one week is very tentative data."
Nina Jarvis, office manager for the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, posted a response to the Sackton report featured on the EDF Web Site, noting a number of procedural errors that she said rendered Sackton's effort meaningless.
Among these, Jarvis wrote, was not recognizing that the government landings were days behind the calendar — so that even Wednesday, the landings report covered not the first week of catch share management, but a period that included time in April and May.
The transition from the old system to the new was fraught with anomalies, as fishermen rushed to use days at sea currency before the shift to catch shares based on catch histories.
NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said the unique moment of fundamental transformation created the "apples and oranges" problem for analysts.
"It is really too early to see any trends," she said.
In New Bedford, Raphael saw the Seafoodnews.com report as reckless.
"This guy (Sackton) doesn't have a clue," said Raphael.
He said the worries of the fleet were valid, and that ultra low allocations of choke species will incapacitate many boats quickly. He corrected Sackton's claim that one of his boats had scored a record $179,000 in the first days May. The actual gross was $169,000, said Raphael.
He also disputed Sackton's claim that the new system will reduce if not eliminate discards or bycatch.
"The old system stinks, but that doesn't mean this system is much better," he said.
Raphael said the catch share system, which requires on board observers on less than half the trips will mean that captains will use the unobserved trips to discard fish to avoid using up small whole allocation of a species that would trigger the shutdown of the permit.
"If you don't think there will be discards, it's a pipe dream, and the truth hurts," Raphael said.
EDF's relentless effort to see catch shares installed in U.S. fisheries has previously brought it controversy.
Last June, on the same blog used to extend Sackton's readership, EDF responded to a report by the West Coast non-profit, Ecotrust, on the negative side of catch shares as used in British Columbia.
EDF's Johanna Thomas wrote that Ecotrust and EDF seemed to agree on the "conservation benefits."
In June, the Environmental Defense Fund considered a critique of privatized fisheries — a goal of EDF — by Ecotrust Canada and found that the two organizations generally agree.
Ecotrust representatives read the EDF blog with consternation, and blogged back:
"...Your blog posting makes our report sound like a glowing reference for ITQs and minimizes our critique of some fundamental problems as experienced in British Columbia, Canada.
"We are also not in agreement that catch shares alone will conserve fish stocks: other factors, like restricting destructive gear, ensuring proper enforcement and stock assessment, are perhaps even more important. In fact, we have seen fish stock declines in catch share fisheries in BC, including abalone, halibut and hake.
"A proper and more balanced reading of our report," wrote Eric Enno Tamm, communications manager of Ecotrust Canada, "would suggest that, as implemented in BC, catch shares have created huge market distortions and have missed the mark in achieving a number of objectives."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or email@example.com.