By Richard Gaines
As the first year of New England groundfishing in commodity-based catch share trading draws to a conclusion, the federal fisheries service has announced liberalized catch limits for many stocks in the second year under Amendment 16, which begins May 1.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, slated for nomination to be ambassador to China, made the announcement of the increased catch limits Monday instead of NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco, who has typically made similar announcements since the start of the Obama administration.
Locke who become a lightning rod for industry anger by rejecting pleas from Gov. Deval Patrick for higher catch limits in January, tis time described fishing as "vital to our coastal communities, their economies and the men and women who work on the water to bring heatlhy seafood to our tables."
He said catch limits on 12 of the 20 stocks in the groundfish complex would be higher in fishing year 2011 that begins 11 days from today.
The benefit from the higher limits, however, is far from certain since, according to government statistics, the fleet is not close to catching the generally lesser volumes allowed in the fishing year drawing to an end.
Through April 9 — 94.2 percent of the 2010 fishing season, which ends April 30 — New England fishermen had landed more than 80 percent of only three stocks, and more than 75.2 percent of just five stocks.
Conversely, no more than 60 percent of the total allowable catch had been landed in 11 of the stocks.
"Gross underfishing is one of the major resource problems to which we've been looking to the government for solution," said Brian Rothschild, the industry advocate and professor of marine science at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. "The magnitude of the underfishing tells you there are problems within the regulatory system that are not being addressed."
The reasons for the underfishing are disputed, but most industry critics of government policies cite the existence of so-called "choke" species on nearly all the mixed groundfish permits.
These are the one or two allocations that vary from permit to permit, but are seen as inordinately low and thus constrain fishing in general, lest the holder overfish the choke stock and get shut down for the remainder of the year.
Under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's new catch share system, a permit reflects an 11-year history of landings, when some fishermen avoided overfished stocks, as wished by government regulators.
The allocations were also universally much lower than recent histories of landings due to rigid rebuilding timelines in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
The dispute focuses on the so-called "Mixed-stock exception" language in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which states there are justifications for allowing overfishing of the weakest stock to allow responsible harvesting of the stronger.
But the government has repeatedly avoided implementing the exception that many believe would ease "underfishing" in the whole complex.
Gloucester-based attorney Stephen Ouellette, who argued in March for a slew of plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Amendment 16 and has written extensively about underfishing, could not be reached Tuesday for comment on Locke's announcement.
But in December, Ouellette said, "Chronic underfishing continues in New England," and by the end of the annual season, "commercial landings will amount to less than one-third of the total allowable catch of 210 million pounds for groundfish stocks, leaving 155 million pounds of fish in the ocean that NOAA scientists say can be sustainably caught."
The announcement by Locke and NOAA, an agency of the Commerce Department, listed 12 stocks receiving higher allocations in the upcoming fishing year — including Georges Bank yellowtail, which was positively affected by federal legislation sponsored by New England federal lawmakers and signed by President Obama in mid-fishing year.
The other 11 and the percentage increase are:
Southern New England/Mid Atlantic yellowtail, 69 percent; witch flounder, 45 percent; Southern New England witch flounder, 40 percent; Georges Bank cod, 25 percent; Cape Cod/Gulf of Maine yellowtail, 21 percent; white hake, 16 percent; redfish and halibut, 10 percent each; American plaice, 9 percent; Georges Bank winter flounder, 8 percent; and Gulf of Maine cod, 6 percent.
Decreased allocations were also announced in two pivotal species. Pollock, which was a widespread choke stock until the government conceded to industry science and upped the initial reduction in mid-year, was cut by 16 percent, and Gulf of Maine haddock was cut by 5 percent.
With only 21 days of the fishing year to go, according to NOAA, the percentage of those stocks caught are:
Southern New England/Mid Atlantic yellowtail, 51.8 percent;, witch flounder 84.8; Southern New England witch flounder was not listed in the catch report; Georges Bank cod, 75.2 percent; Cape Cod/Gulf of Maine yellowtail, 80.4 percent; white hake, 82.5 percent; redfish, 31.3 percent; halibut was not listed in the catch report; American plaice, 53.6 percent; Georges Bank winter flounder, 70 percent; and Gulf of Maine cod, 75.2 percent.
The boost in 2011 limits come three month after Locke, in January, rejected the most extensive scientific report into the effects of Amendment 16, assembled by state university and government scientists, and submitted by Gov. Deval Patrick.
Although the report purported to show that the trading of catch shares between the business cooperatives or sectors produced radical consolidation and dominating accumulation of capacity in a small number of hands, Locke rejected the claim of a man-made — and government-made — economic disaster existed and that the secretary thus could intervene to raise catch limits.
The rejection came as a surprise since Locke seemed to encourage the submission of the evidence with what was interpreted by elected officials in Massachusetts as a clear signal of a desire to use his authority to help.
Congressman Barney Frank was especially angry, asserting that Locke was too weak to stand up to his subordinates, notably Lubchenco, who came into government from the Environmental Defense Fund, the corporate nonprofit that's been the driving force behind catch shares policies and the cap-and-trade economic format.
In March, in an effort to move Locke from his position, Sen. John Kerry met privately with Locke and Lubchenco, and within days of that meeting, President Obama announced his decision to nominate Locke to be ambassador to China — a move that would put the nominee before Chairman Kerry's Senate Commerce Committee for vetting.
Kerry next sent testimony to a Senate subcommittee studying Obama fisheries policies that aligned with the findings in the gubernatorial study Locke had dismissed.
"Due to an allocation schematic that left many of the fishermen with woefully small allocations making them unable to fish or afford to lease quota that would enable them to fish," Kerry wrote, "the bottom 90 percent of the fleet" was been weakened while "the top 10 percent" has grown stronger.
By the end of March, while holding firm against upping the catch limits, Locke tacitly acknowledged the harm caused to the industry by the regimen and agreed to send teams to each of the main fishing port cities in New England for two-day evaluations sometime this month.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.