New England Fishery Management Council Votes Unanimously for “Sector” Catch Shares

Julie Wormser is the New England regional director for Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans program.

Yesterday represented both a figurative and literal sea change in the way New England groundfish stocks will be managed.  Not only did the council vote to move the fishery toward a fishing cooperative-based catch share system called “sectors,”  each of the major issues was decided by a wide majority, representing a new consensus.  The final vote to approve 19 sectors to fish under a New England-designed catch share system was unanimous.  Other key votes included:

  • Significantly increasing random dockside monitoring of the fleet to 50% in 2010, dropping to 20% in subsequent years,
  • Putting a “hard” total allowable catch limit both on sector participants (in 2010) and on non-sector participants still fishing under days-at-sea (in 2012)
  • Opening up “rolling closure” areas to sector participants that had been closed as effort controls.  Areas closed to protect cod spawning aggregations will remain off limits.
  • The allocation formula that translates current fishing permits to sector allocations was based solely on catch history, with an adjustment to keep the allocation formula for cod for the two existing Cape Cod sectors intact.

The meeting was marked not by drama but by legitimate debate about what decisions were the “fairest” to fishermen and what controls were needed to make the new system work.  Speakers from the council and the audience alike repeated the sobering fact that there are not enough fish to go around and that the decision to go to sectors represented the best way forward for a struggling industry and resource.  Council members worked hard and constructively to set the oldest commercial fishery in the United States on the right track.

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Today’s Boston Globe Editorial Captures the Moment

Julie is the New England regional director for Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans program.

Julie Wormser, NE Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.Today’s lead editorial in the Boston Globe captures the urgency of this moment in New England as the region’s Fishery Management Council votes this week on a new catch share system.  It’s a tense time for New England fishermen.  Many are facing the biggest change in fishing management in their lives.  On top of that, they’ve been stressed for years by declining stocks and rules that made it difficult to turn a profit.  The “catch shares” that the council is expected to approve are the best chance to turn this situation around.  There’s plenty of more work ahead but the federal government is putting up to $35m on the table to help fishermen pay for the first two years of this transition.

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Boston Globe Op-Ed by Peter Baker and Robert Johnston Raises Key Point

Julie Wormser, NE Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.Yesterday’s Boston Globe op-ed by Peter Baker and Robert Johnston, and the economic report on which it’s based, make a key point that I think is the cause of a lot of the conflict and distrust between fishermen and fisheries managers. 

The underlying economics of any effort-based regulation–such as the current “days-at-sea” system for New England groundfish–mean that the average profitability of the fishing fleet is zero at the target catch level regulators set.  This drives fishermen with capital to be more productive than the fleet average, and fishermen without access to capital are driven out of the fishery.  Overfishing continues and regulators are forced to continually clamp down on fishing effort.

Under sectors, a form of “catch shares,” the underlying economics are to maximize profitability–both of individual boats and the fleet as a whole.  Regulators set an annual catch limit, allocate portions of that catch limit in this case to fishing cooperatives, and fishermen are free to fish when and how they can make the most money per fish.  It takes pressure off fishermen to catch as much fish as they possibly can just to break even.

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