ELLSWORTH, Maine — Catch controls need to be in place when it comes to regulating the groundfish industry, according to Maine fisherman Glen Libby.
“That’s the biggest problem with fishing right now,” Libby said this week. “There’s not enough fish.”
Which is why Libby is opposed to a proposal from two U.S. senators from New England — Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Kelley Ayotte of New Hampshire — to scrap the federal catch shares system that was implemented in New England less than 18 months ago. Something needs to be done to protect fish stocks, Libby said, and simply throwing out one system without replacing it with another is not going to ensure that commercial fishing has a future.
“That’s my big problem [with Brown and Ayotte’s bill],” said Libby, who fishes out of the midcoast community of Port Clyde. “What’s your plan to rebuild the fish stocks? The fish stocks are in tough shape, so they need tough measures.”
Brown and Ayotte, both Republicans in the U.S. Senate, have introduced a bill that could do away with the catch shares program, which went into effect on May 1, 2010. The catch shares program was put into place as a means of granting fishermen more control over when they can fish without doing away with limits aimed at protecting fish populations.
Before catch shares were adopted, Libby said, fishermen were limited to 14 days at sea and often raced against each other to catch as much of a certain species that they could before the fishing fleet reached the overall catch limit on that species. Fishermen also had limits on how much they could bring ashore from each trip, he said, and so often threw excess fish overboard at sea, though most of it was dead, in order not to exceed their catch limit.
With catch shares, however, individual fishermen are allocated a certain amount before they leave the harbor, Libby said. If they also are part of a larger sector, in which fishermen pool their shares together, they can trade shares back and forth among each other as long as they stay with the overall catch limits allocated to that sector.
Brown and Ayotte have said in separate statements that the catch shares regulatory scheme is “unreasonable” and “overzealous.” Both have said the system is contributing to a loss of jobs in the groundfish industry.
But Pat Keliher, acting commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Friday afternoon that the state supports the catch shares program. He said the state believes it has helped preserve groundfishing in coastal communities where it historically has been an integral part of the local economy.
“Maine is very supportive of the catch shares system,” Keliher said. “We would not be in favor of [doing away with it].”
Robin Alden, executive director of Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, said Thursday that PERC owns the rights to two federal groundfish permits and serves as the manager of one catch shares sector.
Nonetheless, she said that PERC has some concerns about the catch shares program. The system for the first time has established a hard cap on the amount of any groundfish species that can be commercially harvested, which she said is “probably a good idea.”
But it has not done anything to prevent permit consolidation in the industry, which was occurring before the catch shares system was adopted and has led to fewer groundfish industry jobs, she added. The reason PERC has two groundfish permits is to help maintain access to the fishery for eastern Maine fishermen who may want to catch groundfish in the future.
“The number of active vessels has gone down,” Alden said. “Consolidation is happening.”
The economic challenge of groundfishing is concentrating the number of permits and catch allotments among fewer fishermen, she said, and there needs to be a way to broaden the number of participants in the industry as groundfish stocks increase.
“That is something that concerns us greatly,” Alden said of preserving the diversity of New England’s groundfishing fleet and the ability of eastern Maine fishermen to get back into the business down the road.
As for whether the catch shares program is effective, she added, “the jury is still out.”
Heather Deese, vice president of programs for the Island Institute in Rockland, said Friday that the catch shares system does seem to be effective for small and midsize fishing operations in Maine. Similar to PERC, Island Institute has helped preserve access by Maine fishermen to the groundfish industry by acquiring two groundfish permits that it leases to fishermen.
Deese said that, while there has been more effort in the groundfish industry than fish stocks could sustain, catch shares have allowed active Maine fishermen to keep fishing for groundfish and shown signs of helping stocks recover.
“A year and a half in, it seems to be working well for people,” Deese said. “Throwing [catch shares] out doesn’t make a lot of sense when it looks like we’re starting to rebuild our stocks with [the regulatory system’s] catch limits.”
Under Brown and Ayotte’s proposed 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 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.
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.
A voice mail message seeking comment that was left Friday afternoon with Portland Fish Exchange officials was not returned by press time.
Sen. Susan Collins, according to an emailed message from her staff, is reviewing the bill and plans to consult with Maine Department of Marine Resources officials, Maine fishermen with both big and small boats, and other experts in assessing the catch shares program.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, who like Ayotte serves on the Senate commerce committee that is expected to review the bill, released an emailed statement about the catch shares program late Friday afternoon.
“Above all, the successful development of any fishery management plan requires predictability and stability so that fishermen can effectively plan and evaluate business strategies,” Snowe said. “I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues from New England and other regions on ways that we can ensure that the industry is provided with the fleshed-out and straightforward information necessary to make informed decisions about how management changes will affect their businesses.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow BDN Reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at billtrotter.