BOSTON — The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said she’s completely committed to reviving New England’s historic fishing fleet and that a new management system some say is ruining the industry will be the key to its turnaround.
“I firmly believe that recovering the iconic fisheries in New England is paramount,” Jane Lubchenco, who has been the nation’s ocean chief since March 2009, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The old, dark days are not something anyone wants to continue.”
Lubchenco said she favored limits on how much catch one fishing entity can control so that larger fishing interests can’t force small boats out of the industry. She also wanted help for fishermen facing millions in looming costs under the new system. She dismissed the notion that her past ties to environmentalists puts her at odds with the fishermen who disagree with them.
“I have a long-standing great relationship with fishermen as well as environmental groups, and I know they are not at polar opposite ends,” she said.
Lubchenco spoke last week, before she was scheduled to appear in Boston on Monday for what’s likely to be tough questioning before a panel of congressmen convened by U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The group will discuss the social and economic impact of the new system for managing the Northeast groundfish catch, including cod, haddock and flounder.
The old fishing system tried to stop overfishing with an ever-dwindling allotment of fishing days at sea. It also set daily catch limits on some species, forcing fishermen into the wasteful practice of tossing away any fish — usually dead ones — caught over that limit.
The new system, installed in May 2010, sees most fishermen pooling individual catch allotments in groups called sectors. If the fleet exceeds limits on how much they can catch, or throw overboard, all fishing stops.
Some say the catch allotments were unfairly divided, and smaller operators will be forced to sell or lease their paltry shares to larger interests, eventually obliterating the small boat fleet and leaving New England’s fishing resource in the hands of a wealthy few.
A one-year analysis provided fuel for those concerns, showing a loss of jobs (2,442 crew positions in 2009 to 2,277 last year) and groundfishing trips (26,000 to 14,000), while 20 percent of all vessels accounted for 80 percent of revenues last year, up from 68 percent of revenues in 2009.
But Lubchenco said those trends began under the old system. Now, she said, fishermen are becoming more entrepreneurial because the new system allows them to fish for their quota whenever they choose and play the market. The one-year report indicated that prices for groundfish rose 17 percent under the new system.
The change also saw fishermen catch within their limit on 18 of 20 stocks, success that will lead to healthier fish and higher catch allotments in coming years, Lubchenco said.
But fishermen have heard similar promises for years, and Lubchenco said it’s clear the industry’s problems won’t fade overnight.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel,” she said.
Lubchenco said NOAA has realized the new system lacks “checks and balances” to stop a few entities from controlling most of the fishery. She said she favors putting caps, so-called accumulation limits, on how much any single fishing interest can control and has pushed regional managers to quickly decide what those limits should be.
“I think it is in the best interests of the region to have a lot of fishermen,” Lubchenco said. “This is a cultural identity of the region, and it’s valuable for that reason.”
Lubchenco has been criticized for saying the fleet needed to be substantially reduced to relieve pressure on fish stocks, but last week she said reducing the fleet is not her goal.
“I do not know what the size of the fishery should be,” she said. “It is not our goal to have anything other than a diverse fleet that is sustainable.”
She also said it’s important to find a way to help fishermen pay the millions in potentially crushing costs for at-sea monitors, which are required under the new system to track the catch and ensure fishermen are staying within the set limits. The costs were covered by the federal government in the first two years of the new system, but fishermen look to be on their own in 2012.
“It’s a very real concern that we share with fishermen,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I just know we need to figure that out.”
Lubchenco has been viewed with suspicion by some fishermen because she’s a former high-ranking board member of the Environmental Defense Fund. The group is a longtime and vigorous advocate for the tighter fishing controls that some fishermen say have needlessly forced them out of business.
Lubchenco pointed to extensive efforts to work with fishermen as evidence of her good faith, estimating “probably 10 times as many meetings with fishermen than environmental groups” during her time at NOAA.
“I’ve really reached out to fishermen,” she said. “That may not be the story out there because people will see what they want.”
Lubchenco said she believes regulators must rebuild trust with fishermen, but she added that it will be impossible for her to win everyone over.
“That not my goal,” she said. “My goal is to have the best possible programs.”