A coalition of New England fishing interests, including the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, Mass., has filed suit against the federal government over the sector management system. The suit charges that Amendment 16 — the provision of the Magnuson-Stevens fisheries management act under which the system was implemented —unfairly benefits special interests at the expense of smaller, independent fishing entities.
The plaintiffs argue that by enforcing the amendment's requirements, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its fisheries service are unconstitutionally imposing unfair costs and regulatory burden, overly restricting catch limits and inequitably distributing fish allocation under the sector system. Oral arguments in the case were heard in March in U.S. District Court in Boston.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs estimate that compliance with the regulations costs some vessels up to $27,000 and that for many small vessels, monitoring costs could eventually exceed the gross value of their landings.
Meanwhile in Congress, an amendment of the continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government for the remainder of the fiscal year prevents federal funds from being used to approve new catch share systems. Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, with support from Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has argued that the management system hurts fishermen and coastal communities, and a version of his amendment passed in April prohibits federal funding for the approval of new catch shares programs along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud voted against the amendment.
NOAA's legal interpretation of the budget amendment, however, still allows fisheries managers to move forward with catch share plans, but the plans' actual approval would be prohibited, at least until the next fiscal year.
All Northeast sectors
Total allocation 130M lb.
Total traded 15.4M lb
% traded between sectors 12%
Sustainable Harvest Sector
Total allocation 58.2M lb.
Total traded 12.3M lb.
Within sector 8.2M lb.
To other sectors 2.5M lb.
From other sectors 1.6M lb.
% traded 12%
* Includes cash deals, quota swaps and gifts
Source: Sustainable Harvest Sector April replort, Federal Register
Just over one year ago, New England's groundfish fishery underwent what some describe as the most sweeping change since the enactment of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976, the primary law governing management of the country's marine fisheries. Last May, an amendment to the law transitioned the Northeast fishery away from the longstanding days-at-sea system, under which fishermen were allotted a certain number of days to fish in federal waters. In an attempt to revamp their approach toward rebuilding depleted fish stocks, federal regulators authorized fishermen to organize into sectors, voluntary groups that are allocated a share of the annual catch limit to divvy up among members as they see fit.
Early reports indicate that fishermen are earning more money under the sector or "catch share" system despite catching lower volumes of fish, though regulators are hesitant to credit the sector model alone. Supporters say the system offers an economically and environmentally viable alternative to the days-at-sea model, but some argue that sectors have led to a greater concentration of catch share ownership among a few larger players. Terms more commonly used to describe trading in the global oil market are popping up, with critics citing the "commoditization" of the fishery and labeling large owners of catch share as "speculators." Meanwhile, congressional action threatens future funding for catch share programs and a lawsuit makes its way through the Boston courts (see "Sectors face legal challenges," below.)
Vessels in the Northeast brought in $226.4 million during the first nine months under the new system, up nearly $24 million from the prior year but down $4 million from 2007, according to an April National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration interim report. Of that, groundfish revenues alone jumped from $59.6 million to $62.3 million in 2010. The report does not address the costs associated with the new system, such as membership fees and operating expenses.
Boats from Maine to New Jersey caught 192.1 million pounds of groundfish and other species in 2010, 7% less than in 2009. Groundfish accounted for 43.6 million pounds, dropping 15%. But that smaller volume netted higher prices, with fishermen earning an average of $1.47 a pound for groundfish, up from $1.20 the prior year. Had prices been lower, however, a number of fishermen may not have survived the season.
Loosely arranged by geography, but primarily by common goals and methods, the sectors now total 19 in the Northeast, with two new sectors this year based in Maine. Fishermen can still choose to operate under the days-at-sea system, but their numbers are dwindling. For the 2011 fishing year, 829 vessels in the Northeast are flying the sector flag, a 9% jump from last year, while 646 vessels are sticking with days at sea. For some, it's a lesser-of-two-evils proposition, with drastic cuts to the number of allowed days at sea impelling many to make the switch. Per vessel, average days at sea have plummeted from 176 a year in 1994 to just 24 today. "We're taking this sector program as the alternative to going out of business," says Gary Libby, a Port Clyde fisherman who has worked on draggers for more than 30 years.
After working in the groundfishing business for more than 20 years, Maggie Raymond is well acquainted with the disadvantages of the days-at-sea management model. Too many boats racing to catch as much fish as quickly as possible led to a number of problems. Ever-increasing "trip limits" restricted the number of fish that could be landed per day, and area closures, some of which are still in place, put wide swaths of federal waters off limits for part or all of the season. Fish were wasted when fishermen who had reached their catch limits tossed the excess back overboard, helping neither the resource nor the fishermen, Raymond says.
Today, Raymond's two 70- and 60-foot steel trawlers operate out of Boston under the auspices of the Sustainable Harvest Sector, Maine's largest with 105 permits and 38 active vessels from Maine to Cape May, N.J. "Initially, it was a difficult transition," she says. "There were a lot of new reporting requirements." Sectors allow groundfishermen to pool catch rights and collectively ensure that their membership doesn't exceed its allocation of about 20 managed stocks.
Members of the sector can lease, trade or donate allocation, both within and outside the sector, allowing greater flexibility in when and how they fish. Groundfishermen can now time their catches to cash in on high market prices and good weather and cooperate to swap allocation if a member catches too much or too little of a species. "Our revenue increased about 10% and the costs we've paid to lease allocation were about what we paid to lease days at sea before," Raymond says. She's borrowed about $300,000 over the past couple of years to buy permits. "My partner and I feel that it will pay off; we will be able to pay off these loans," she says.
The allocation for each member seeking to join a sector is based on their past catches, a formula that galls some fishermen who landed little catch or chose not to fish during those years. Also head of Associated Fisheries of Maine, a trade association of 40 fishermen, harvesters, processors and others throughout New England, as well as a member of the Sustainable Harvest Sector's board, Raymond says overall, reaction to the sector system has been positive. The Sustainable Harvest Sector added a few new members this year, including a young man who's never owned a boat before, Raymond says. "That's encouraging; there's always a question of how do you get new people into the fishery." Still, she's glad her son's days of working on one of her boats have ended. "He's my only child, and it's too dangerous," she says.
The practice of discarding fish, whether for regulatory or market reasons, is prohibited under the sector system. Bycatch, or fish that's caught unintentionally as a fisherman targets other species, now counts against the quota, providing economic incentive to use techniques and equipment that better target sought-after species and spare depleted stocks.
In the Sustainable Harvest Sector, discards dropped by at least half in the first year under the sector system, according to an April report. Meanwhile, catches of underutilized stocks like redfish and Georges Bank haddock have risen, catches of overfished species have dropped, and trading of allocation has allowed some fishermen to extend their season. "In general, I think our folks felt they figured it out pretty quickly and they are able to work in the system and it holds more economic promise than the old system," says Hank Soule, the sector's manager. None of the sector's members reverted to the days at sea model in 2011.
Not everyone has fared well under the sector system, however. About 10 boats in the Sustainable Harvest Sector tied up after receiving too little allocation to make fishing worthwhile, or struggling to cope with the changes. But in light of federal requirements to limit fish mortality — such as a 30% reduction for Gulf of Maine cod — and the roughly 400 active vessels out fishing, something had to give, Raymond says. "The reason why so many people are complaining that they don't have enough allocation is we're dividing it up between too many people." Nonetheless, "It's really unfortunate that a lot of people were hurt," she says.
Libby of Port Clyde fished all of his allocation last year and also leased some, making out adequately even though his total volume dropped by a quarter. "I did pretty well," he says. "A lot of the guys were down worse than me." The Port Clyde Community Groundfish Sector includes mostly smaller boats that fish in the Gulf of Maine, and some fishermen haven't received enough allocation to earn a living, Libby says. "They have to go out and ask their neighbor for a handful of fish so they can go out and work."
Some criticize the sector management system for exacerbating contraction of the fishing fleet, a trend prevalent long before the system's implementation. "There has been ongoing consolidation in this fishery for at least the last five years," says Marjorie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for NOAA's Northeast regional office. From 2007 to 2009, 20% of active vessels in the Northeast accounted for about 66% of groundfish revenues. In 2010, the same 20% of vessels accounted for even more, about 75% of groundfish revenues, according to the NOAA interim report. The number of vessels accounting for the top quarter of those dollars dropped by half, from 26 to 13, from 2007 to 2010.
Concern about consolidation led the New England Fishery Management Council earlier this year to ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to publish a "control date" beyond which the acquisition of permits might be handled differently. A report by council staff found that in Massachusetts, the top three permit holders controlled 41% of the allocation of Georges Bank winter flounder, 25% of another unnamed stock and 10% to 20% of 11 other stocks. A final decision has yet to be reached on the ramifications of the April 7 control date.
As positive as he feels about the sector management system's potential, Soule still sees a number of disincentives to a profitable fishery in Maine. The 5% diesel fuel tax combined with the state's prohibition on selling lobster bycatch continues to drive many fishermen to Massachusetts.
Raymond fished out of Portland from 1989 to 2004. But the potential for an extra $100,000 annually from selling lobster bycatch and thousands in fuel and wharf savings, at a time when days at sea were sharply declining, lured her boats to Boston. Of the roughly 850 vessels active in the Northeast in 2010, just 16 called Portland home, compared to 55 in Boston and more than 100 in Gloucester, Mass. Raymond's not sure if her boats or those of others will ever return to Portland. "We're still a long way from that," she says.
But Soule remains optimistic, and confident in Gov. Paul LePage's selection of former commercial fisherman Norman Olson as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources. "I feel a ray of hope here," Soule says. "For the first time in a long time, and I've been in groundfishing for a long time, I think there's a chance Maine's fortunes will look up."
Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz senior writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.