New England senators propose bill that could end new fishing system

Posted Oct. 11, 2011, at 5:17 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 11, 2011, at 6:03 p.m.

BOSTON — Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte have introduced a bill that could scrap a contentious new system for managing New England’s fisheries.

Under the bill, New England’s program would be terminated if more than 15 percent of participating fishermen lost their jobs in the first year. The new system finished its first year in May, but it’s not yet known if the 15 percent threshold was reached.

The bill also requires a two-thirds vote by fishermen before any future fishery management systems are approved.

“This legislation would help level the playing field for independent small fishermen by scrapping unreasonable federal mandates that are killing jobs while giving local fishing communities more control during the program establishment process,” Ayotte said in a press release.

Brown said it’s clear the new system in New England is eliminating fishing jobs.

“As more and more jobs disappear from Massachusetts ports, Congressional action is needed to save the fishing industry from overzealous federal regulation,” he said in a release.

A spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the fishery, said the agency “doesn’t have a position on the bill at this point.”

Under the new “catch share” system, individual fishermen are given shares of the catch for each species of groundfish, bottom-dwelling fish such as cod and flounder. They then pool the shares and manage them in groups called sectors. If a catch limit is exceed on one species, fishing stops on all species.

The system aims to give fishermen flexibility to play the market and increase profits. But some fishermen say their allotments were unfairly low and the system will force out small-boat fishermen in favor of wealthier boat owners, who can better absorb lower catch limits.

Preliminary analysis of the first year of the system, which went into effect in May 2010, showed fishermen getting higher prices. But it also indicated certain trends were continuing, including the loss of crew positions and the fact that fewer boats are claiming an increasing percentage of the catch.

The bill introduced by Brown and Ayotte, both Republicans, is modeled after a bill introduced by New Jersey Republican Rep. Jon Runyan, except it applies to existing “catch-share” programs, not just future programs.

The bill would require two-thirds of fishermen to approve any new fishery management plan, including agreeing to pay any added costs. New England’s new system, for instance, came with millions in new costs that have been subsidized by the government, but are likely soon to fall on fishermen.

The legislation also says if the U.S. Commerce Secretary determines 15 percent of permit-holding fishermen lost their jobs in the first year under any new catch share program, the program will be terminated a year later. During that time, regional fishery managers would devise a new system.

The bill will be referred to the Senate’s commerce committee while Brown and Ayotte try to win support for passage.

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