Editor and Publisher John Sackton: Time to Clean Up Hypocrisy and Mis-information in Catch Share Debate

Time to Clean up Hypocrisy and Mis-information in Catch Share debate
As originally printed on SEAFOODNEWS.COM by John Sackton – Dec 3, 2009.
Reprinted with permission.

Two editorials we print today against catch shares contain enough mis-information and hypocrisy that we felt compelled to set the record straight. Reading the Food and Water Watch editorial in the Portland Press Herald, or the editorial again slamming NMFS in today’s Gloucester Daily Times, you would think a conflagration is burning in New England against catch shares.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The biggest issue causing consternation in the industry in New England is not catch shares, but whether blind adherence to bureaucratic procedures will doom the success of catch shares. About 97% of the fleet has signed on to sector programs, and they are focused on making them work.

Here is our attempt to set the record straight:

Huge errors in NMFS data

There have been repeated stories about how many errors exist in the NMFS catch history database, so that many boats are fishing on incorrect history, and have no opportunity to correct them until 2011. At the recent Council meeting, Pat Kurkul, NMFS regional administrator, said that out of 1480 eligible histories, only 66 have been challenged. This is far fewer than NMFS expected. As a result, they are able to have individual discussions with each person challenging their history.

On the other hand, if you don’t own the permit yourself, there is no way to challenge the history, so if you had been leasing a permit, it is the owner of the permit who is responsible for making any challenge. Therefore it is quite likely that there are additional vessels using leased permits where the lease holder thinks the history is inaccurate, but the owner either does not have the records or has left the fishery, and will not challenge the allocation. But in either case, the number of errors and challenges is not nearly as large as some would want you to believe.

Catch Shares will destroy small boat fleets

The basic argument of Food and Water Watch is that the catch share system will destroy the ability of small boats to survive and make a living. The problem here is not catch shares, it is that there is not enough fish to support the level of effort that would allow all New England boats to thrive. The idea that the alternative to catch shares is some idyllic return to the early 1980’s, when fish were abundant, and small boats could thrive, is simply a myth.

Here are the facts about the small boat fleet: There are 757 permits in the common pool, with a total of about 3600 days at sea. Out of these permits, 477 have no days at sea whatsoever, meaning they have been in-active or non-participatory for several years. Of the remaining 280 permits, 79 never fished in 2007, and 98 never landed a single groundfish, monkfish, or skate.

None of these numbers account for leased permits, so the total number of small vessels actually making landings, and remaining in the common pool is likely to be between 30 and 100 or so. The average length of these vessels is around 38 feet. The share of landings they will get is equal to about 3% of the total landings expected in 2010.

The council gave NMFS the power to shut down the common pool fishery as soon as the limits are reached for various species, and since the weakest species will be the limiting factor, it is highly likely that the common pool fishery next year will last no more than a few weeks, and then be shut for the remainder of the year. On some species, it may not open at all.

This is the reality – not some myth of healthy small boats bobbing in many local harbors. Instead of destroying small boat fleets, catch shares will allow a portion of them to survive, by either temporarily leasing their shares, or by combining more shares on a single boat to make it viable. Last year, 549 leasing deals were approved by NMFS, for a total of about 11,807 days at sea, at an average value of $442.00 per day at sea.

Hypocrisy spouted by the Gloucester times over NMFS funding

Today they rail against NMFS going to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for additional funds to implement catch shares in New England. They say it ‘is grossly inappropriate for the government to accept money for its own mandated programs from a foundation whose funding or investing ‘partners’ include the likes of Wal-Mart, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America and the Big Oil gang of British Petroleum, Exxon/Mobil, Marathon Oil, Shell, and Conoco-Phillips.’

‘Even local city councilors, selectmen and municipal administrators know the potential conflict and dangers that can come through letting private entities openly contribute to projects that are government-run and should be government-funded.’

‘Letting Big Oil companies and other corporate entities essentially fund a major government regulatory program one that has never been given a congressional green light crosses so many lines it has to be considered far out of bounds, even in today’s ‘stimulus’ age of governmental corporate takeovers.’

The reason this is so shockingly hypocritical is that the City of Gloucester, State representative Bruce Tarr, and the entire local government lobbied hard and welcomed $16 million in direct payments to Gloucester interests from Suez and Excelerate, the two companies involved in building an offshore LNG terminal off Gloucester. These are giant global oil and gas conglomerates.

The oil money from Suez paid $12.6 million to the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund – established specifically to buy and lease days at sea and fishing permits for Gloucester. The oil money paid $3.6 million directly in compensation to fishermen. The oil money paid $150,000 to the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center.

The fact that the Gloucester Times can rail against NMFS accepting money from the well respected and highly monitored National Fish and Wildlife Federation, and not mention that their own community received direct payments of $16 million from oil and natural gas companies is simply not acceptable. Here is State Sen. Bruce Tarr in the Gloucester Times in 2007 , ‘We’ve been trying to expedite it [the funding] because with all the threats facing the industry, I’m trying to get some dollars soon for some extra days to fish.’

If the Gloucester Times wants to attack NMFS as being in the pocket the oil companies because of the funding chain, then they must also censure their own fishing community, who took oil money to extend their ability to purchase days at sea. It would be far better for them to focus on the real issues at stake, which are concerns about imprecise science, stock assessments, and flexibility.

New England has already opted in to the Sector Program

About 95% of the New England fishing industry has opted into the sector program, and they are focused on making it work. The biggest threat is not oil companies, environmental groups, or outside investors, it is that rigid adherence to ‘precautionary’ principles in a time of rapidly rebuilding stocks can doom the best chance New England has to transform its industry.

At the council meeting, it was stated that within the next few years, due to catch shares and hard TAC’s, 11 to 12 stocks now classified as overfished will no longer be so, within a 2 year time period. Environmentalists should be jumping up and down celebrating this success.

Everyone who cares about the success of New England fisheries should keep their eyes on the main goal: giving fishermen the flexibility to align their interests with the conservation requirements of hard quotas. Opponents of catch shares need to answer one question: Why do they want to perpetuate a system in which up to half of the fish caught in New England are thrown overboard, dead, and wasted, due to the current management system.

Catch shares are a trade off: fishermen get the flexibility to fish in the best and most efficient manner, they get to keep all they catch without trip limits or arbitrary closures, and they get monitored. As a result, the government gets reliable information about landings, virtually all fish of legal size are landed, and the improvements in monitoring mean that quotas can go up as less of a precautionary buffer is required to deal with discards.

Around the globe, no fisheries management system has been proven better at aligning fish production and conservation interests. Yet from all the noise, it seems that opponents of catch shares cling to a myth of the idyllic fishery, not the reality that the industry is dying due to self-inflicted wounds of a management strategy that creates permanent war between fishermen and regulators.

John Sackton, Editor And Publisher News

This entry was posted in New England and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. Posted December 10, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    The City of Gloucester lobbied hard against the LNG Terminal coming here at all. The EDF doesn’t understand all of the ramifications of catch shares and are giving all real environmentalists a bad name. The environmentalists of Cape Ann are against catch shares, because we understand what is happening. EDF should send some of it’s people here to understand the situation.