With this story, Saving Seafood begins an in-depth series examining major issues facing the industry that will be discussed in March at a fisheries summit, currently being planned by New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang's Oceans and Fisheries Task Force. The Task Force is chaired by Dean Emeritus Brian Rothschild of the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
The first installment in the series looks at Sector Management, the system of implementing Catch Shares, currently planned to be implemented in the northeast fisheries this spring. Catch Share management is the policy for fisheries management adopted by NOAA under the Obama Administration.
by Jonathan Hemmerdinger
Special to Saving Seafood
NEW BEDFORD, Mass – Feb. 17, 2010 – At a meeting of New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang’s Oceans and Fisheries Council last week, northeast ground fishermen and industry insiders expressed fear about the loss of fishing jobs and fishing revenue after the May 1 implementation of the "sector" management plan approved in January by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We are looking at a 50 percent to 75 percent [reduction] in vessels," said Richard Canastra, co-owner of the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction in New Bedford and the Boston Seafood Display Auction, in an earlier interview. "They aren't given us enough fish to fish on."
Thomas Nies, a fishery analyst on the New England Fisheries Management Council, agreed that jobs will likely be lost. "It is completely realistic that there will be fewer fishermen," he said in a phone interview. "There isn't any question that will happen. It's an expected outcome."
Under the plan, Northeast ground fish permit holders—fishermen who target species such as cod, haddock, pollock and flounder—can join fishing cooperatives called sectors and fish under agreed restrictions. Sector fishermen are guaranteed a portion of the total quota based on each member's historical catch.
In New England, fishing sectors have existed on a very limited basis, but the impact on New England fisheries under a widespread implementation are uncertain, said Brian Rothschild, who chairs Mayor Lang’s council and is dean emeritus at the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
"People I speak to don't know if sectors will be economically viable," he said.
THE WEAKEST LINK
Fishermen and others in the industry are concerned with how the sector plan manages quotas.
Mark Grant, a NOAA policy analyst, said the agency manages 20 stocks of fish in three geographic areas: the Gulf of Maine, George’s Bank and Southern New England. But those 20 stocks are composed of only 14 fish species because the agency splits some species into multiple stocks. There is a George’s Bank cod stock, for instance, and a Gulf of Maine cod stock. There are three stocks of yellowtail flounder.
Five species—pollock, white hake, American plaice, witch flounder and redfish—each have only one stock, called an East Coast stock, said Grant. For those species, their stock area footprint covers all three major eastern fishing grounds.
Under the sector plan, sector fishermen must cease all fishing in a geographic area once they reach or exceed the quota on any of the 20 stocks, Grant said. For instance, fishermen who reach their George’s Bank cod quota can no longer fish for anything on George’s Bank.
Likewise, fishermen who reach their quota on pollock—a so-called “choke stock” with a three-area footprint—can no longer fish anywhere on the East Coast, Grant said.
It’s a regulatory framework that Vito Giacalone, policy director at Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, said is based on the “weakest link.” He calls the species with the small quotas and wide footprints the “circuit breaker of the system.” Once that quota is reached, he said, “the system shuts down.”
The result, said Richard Canastra, is that entire sectors could be shut down within a matter of months.
Carlos Rafael, whose 44 ground fish permits make him one of the largest permit holders in Massachusetts, explained how the closures might happen. Boats that target gray sole or plaice, he said, will also likely haul pollock as bycatch—all three species swim in the same deep ocean water.
But pollock quotas might be lower than sole or plaice quotas—possibly much lower. As a result, "if you haul 500 pounds of pollock [but] you only have 50 pounds of quota … you shut down the whole sector," Rafael said. And because Pollock is one of the species with a single East Coast stock, fishing shuts down in all three areas.
Rothschild called Rafael's concern legitimate. "Once you reach your [limit], everybody has to close down," he said.
LACK OF SYSTEMS
Giacalone said an effective electronic system to track landings and quotas of multiple species is critical to the success of sector management plans.
Unfortunately, those systems largely don't exist, he said. As a result, "the sectors can't respond quickly enough to avoid having to shut down."
Still, Giacalone said he "reluctantly" supports the sector plan because it is better than the other options. "It's the best shot at keeping the most people in the [fishery]," he said.
Nies of NEFMC said there are some possible alternatives to total sector closures, "but it remains to be seen if any of them will get used." One option, he said, is that the Council could possibly permit some fishing to continue but with gear restrictions. For instance, to avoid catching yellowtail flounder, fishermen could be restricted only to long lines.
Another option is for sectors to purchase addition quota from other fishermen. But Nies said fishermen might be reluctant to sell "something they already don't think they have enough of."
"The trade will develop," he said, "but it will take a little time"
MORE FISH, LOWER QUOTAS
In addition to the sector plan, the 2010 fishing year will see a slash in fish quotas from 2009.
Canastra said the 2010 quota for yellowtail flounder was set at 1.2 million pounds, down from 3.5 million pounds in 2009. Overall, ground fish quotas in 2010 will be some 50 percent less than they were in 2009, he said.
Giacalone said Canastra's estimates are largely accurate. But, he said, it's difficult to know exactly because quotas vary by species. For example, pollock quota is down 66 percent this year, he said. And one of two cod quotas was slashed about 50 percent. But the Cape Cod yellowtail flounder quota is nearly unchanged.
Giacalone said the quota reductions result from a federal mandate that overfished stocks be capable of rebuilding within 10 years or less. As a result, he said, "low quotas are not necessarily the result of low stock size." The government can reduce quotas even on stocks that are growing—but perhaps not growing fast enough by federal standards, he said. "It forces you to catch less [even if] the stock is three times larger [than it was a few years ago]"
Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have called for an independent study of the rebuilding timeline. “Fisheries are an economic engine for our coastal communities, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act includes a commitment to achieve optimum yield from our fisheries while minimizing adverse economic impact. Congressman Frank and I are asking NOAA to fund this study to determine whether the 10-year rebuilding timeline best meets these mandates,” said Senator Snowe. “The rigid and arbitrary 10 year rebuilding timeline was one of my major objections to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Congressman Frank added.
Canastra said the quota cuts could result in lost fishing jobs and a fleet reduction. This follows the loss of some $250 million in revenue in 2009 as a result of “weakest link” management, according to Canastra.
New Bedford’s Harriet Didrickson, who owns New Bedford Ship Supply and has been involved with the fishing industry most of her life, also fears the sectors will force fishermen out of work. "[It's] another consolidation the fishery," she said. "We are [already] at the high end of unemployment numbers [here] in New Bedford. How far down do they want to drive us?"
Nies of NEFMC noted, however, that the industry has been shrinking for years, even before sector management was widely in use. In 2001, he said, 1,100 ground fish boats were fishing. In 2008 there were 600.
Nies added that sectors aren't a new or particularly radical management scheme. There have been some sectors in New England since 2004 and sectors are also used overseas. And the Pacific whiting fishery is regulated under a sector-like program.
The new sector plan in New England greatly expands sector management, but does so in light of "lessons learned" from other fisheries, Nies said.
Still, there's a feeling among fishermen that government regulators didn't adequately analyze the impact of the sector plan prior to approval.
"There hasn't been enough planning going into this," said Didrickson. "You can't be wrong on this. You have to get it right."
Permit holder Rafael agreed. "What is the government prepared to do if [this] fails? They never had anything ready if something malfunctions, and it will malfunction," he said.
A buyback program, where government or industry either individually or jointly pays fishermen not to fish by purchasing their permits, gear or vessel, is one option to help impacted watermen. But despite some industry support, the sector plan lacks a buyback.
Jimmy Odlin, a ground fish vessel owner and member of the New England Fisheries Management Council, said buybacks can reduce fishing fleets by up to 40 percent to 50 percent. The programs, which have been used in the Alaska pollock, Alaska crab and north Pacific ground fish fisheries, benefit remaining fishermen with greater quota.
Sector plans, say industry experts, are a type of "catch-share," a controversial management programs in which fishermen and fishing entities are guaranteed a fixed share of the yearly quota, which can be caught on a flexible timetable. As with the sector plan, catch-share programs usually allow fishermen to buy and sell quota.
Catch shares are a departure from the fleet-wide quotas and effort controls of the past, when fishermen caught as much fish as possible during allowed time frames, before the season's quota was filled.
In the United States, 15 catch-share programs manage species including red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, sablefish in the Pacific Northwest, and king crab in the Bering Sea, according to a report by the environmental arm of nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts.
Some scientists and environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund say catch shares eliminate the quota “race” or "derby" and reduce overfishing and bycatch.
But opponents say the programs cost fishing jobs and lead to corporate consolidation of fishing.
For instance, in 2009, the federal government approved a catch-share plan for Northeast small-boat scallop fishermen. Under the plan, scallopers are granted a "share" of the scallop catch, which they can sell to other fishermen.
Tom Dempsey, a policy analyst with the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, said that after the plan was implemented, the Cape Cod scallop fleet consolidated and permits migrated off Cape Cod as wealthier fishermen in bigger ports bought up other's shares. In 2005 there were roughly 120 active scallop permits on Cape Cod, Dempsey said, though not all permit holders fished regularly. Today, there are only 19 permits, he said.
Consolidation isn't unusual under catch share plans.
Linda Behnken is executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association in Sitka, Alaska. In 2004, the Alaska crab fishery was converted to a catch share program. Though the plan improved safety—as the race to fill the quota was gone—Behnken said small, rural Alaskan fishing communities lost nearly all of their crab boats and fishing jobs. The fleet consolidated under fewer owners, some of whom lived nowhere near the sea.
And in the mid-Atlantic, the surf clam fleet shrank from 128 to 59 boats under a catch share plan, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts. The largest shareholders in that fishery were a bank and an accounting firm.
Bonnie McCay, chair of the department of human ecology at Rutgers University, has studied the social impact of catch share plans. McCay said poorly written plans can turn fishermen from self-employed to seafaring sharecroppers—dependent on far-away owners.
The plans can also disrupt the traditional career progression of aspiring fishermen, she said. In the past, kids worked their way up from crew-members to small-boat owner-operators. But catch shares impose a large cost of entry on fishing because you have to first buy shares. As a result, kids from poor coastal communities can often no longer can afford to work for themselves.
Despite industry concerns, catch shares are gaining momentum. In June 2009, President Obama established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, ordering it to recommend a "national policy that ensures the protection, maintenance and restoration” of the health of ocean.
A few days later, NOAA announced a new Catch Share Task Force to assist the agency “as they consider and implement catch-share management programs." Monica Medina, senior adviser to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, said in a statement, "Transitioning to catch shares is a priority."