Is the recreational angler next?
Lubchenco holds firm on May 1 'catch share' launch$10 million funding boost seen as 'buying everyone off'
By Richard Gaines
The Obama administration's avowed plan to advance a fishing policy aimed at putting "a significant fraction" of the fishing captains in the northeast groundfishing fleet out of work is on track, according to testimony by captains.
"This is the face of consolidation; no one is going to make it," Gloucester Capt. Al Cattone said of the government's push through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to launch its "catch share" regulatory format here May 1.
"I got nothing; I'll be catching one third of the fish I caught previously," said Capt. Joe Orlando. "Because of the reallocation, we got screwed."
"I'm out of business," said Corrado Buccheri, who owns two boats.
"I'm in the 2 percent who are supposed to make it, and I'm not going to make it," said Richard Burgess, who owns 11 permits and four boats.
Cattone, Orlando, Buccheri and Burgess were among two dozen fishermen invited by Mayor Carolyn Kirk to a 90-minute meeting last week with NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco.
Lubchenco was here as a witness for the first of two congressional field hearings on federal fisheries law enforcement failings identified by U.S. Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser.
Lubchenco expressed sympathy and suggested various form of aid.
But her comments also made clear that the transition to "catch shares," a system of negotiable allocations of the annual total amount of fish to be taken from the ocean, slated to begin May 1 in New England will proceed as planned.
On the eve of her arrival in Gloucester — her second visit, first in public — Lubchenco's office announced an additional $10 million in aid to "preserve fishing opportunities."
Included was $5 million in capital to start up "permit banks" in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and to enlarge a small permit bank that had gotten $1 million in federal funding weeks earlier.
The other $5 million was to help underwrite the high operating costs of "sectors," the fishing cooperatives that will work under the new system rather than continue to work under the old system of effort controls — days at sea and closed areas.
Together with earlier financial commitments, Eric Schwaab, the assistant administrator for NOAA fisheries, said NOAA has invested $47.2 million in the groundfish industry's transition to sectors.
But industry leaders are scoffing at the suggestion that the money would be able to reverse or slow the exodus of jobs.
"They're trying to buy everyone off," said David Goethel, a commercial fisherman from New Hampshire who serves as a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. "They're doing an end run around Magnuson (the federal law governing commercial fishing) with a very unpopular program.
The $47 million, Goethel noted, "is close to the (current) value of the fishery."
The loss of jobs traces to many sources — primarily the small size of the catch allocation quotas for the coming year, which were made by the council last summer and fall.
Provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act require all overfished stocks to be rebuilt at the same time — by 2014. Most of the New England congressional delegation has signed onto bills to provide some flexibility in Magnuson.
But at a rally in Washington, D.C., last month on behalf of the "flexibility" bills — a demonstration that drew at least 5,000 fishing people from ports on all three coasts — Schwaab circulated the periphery of the gathering, handing out a press release explaining why the administration opposed the bill.
In Gloucester, Lubchenco told the Times, "I don't believe that the bill is the right solution."
Many fishermen fear that the small allocation, as it drives fishermen into bankruptcy and out of business, will encourage speculators to buy into the industry when prices of permits are depressed, and enjoy windfall profits with larger allocations in coming years.
For now, according to Goethel and Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the market in groundfish permits is frozen by uncertainty with investors present and curious, but so far not buying.
"The permit market is frozen," said Goethel. "Unless there is some Wall Street dude out there with no brains, the market is locked up tight."
Giacalone said one uncertainty is whether a true catch share system is in store for the industry.
The "catch share" term comes from the Environmental Defense Fund, and is used regularly by Lubchenco, who was vice chairwoman of the EDF board before her selection by President Obama to head NOAA. Soon after her Senate confirmation, Lubchenco challenged the New England council to complete work on its catch share system.
But Giacalone argues that the sectors are working with allocations that can be rescinded and changed, putting outside investors at risk of buying "fool's gold."
At the meeting with fishermen, Lubchenco was asked by Capt. Orlando to define a "catch share."
Her answer: A negotiable stock that fishermen can sell as they go out of business, allowing them to exit with some cash.
But her answer did not include any qualifier, or any doubt, about whether such a system is coming to New England in a little more than seven weeks.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org