ELLSWORTH, Maine — Groundfishermen are few and far between in eastern Maine these days, but the ability of Mainers to get back into the industry needs to be protected, a group of fishermen and Maine fishing advocates told a federal official Tuesday.
About two dozen people, most of them licensed fishermen, met at City Hall on Tuesday night with Anne Hawkins of the New England Fishery Management Council to discuss consolidation and diversity in the groundfishing fleet. Federal officials held the meeting to get feedback about a potential amendment, called Amendment 18, to the Northeast multispecies fishery management plan that would address the issue of consolidation.
The issue of permit consolidation, by which some fishermen and commercial fishing firms have been buying up permits from others to increase their share of stock quotas, has been a growing concern among many fishermen and advocates. The concern is that by consolidating the permits in fewer hands, fish stocks are becoming less of a publicly held resource.
According to statistics provided by the management council, the amount of groundfish species such as cod, flounder, haddock and hake caught each year off the East Coast has plummeted since 1982, when more than 300 million pounds were harvested. By the mid-1990s that figure had fallen to approximately 70 million pounds. Since then it has wavered between 100 million pounds and 50 million pounds.
In Maine, the estimated amount of groundfish harvested in 2010 was approximately 5 million pounds, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics. The estimated total that groundfishermen made from those landings is $4.5 million.
Since the late 1990s, the number of active groundfish vessels in Maine dropped by nearly two-thirds, according to the New England Fishery Management Council. There were 188 such vessels in Maine in 1996 but by 2008 there were only 77. The commission did not have figures for more recent years.
From Maine to Florida, the number of active groundfish vessels on the East Coast fell by roughly half, from 1,354 to 684, over the same period. For Massachusetts, which has had the most groundfishing vessels, the number of active vessels in the fishery fell from 716 in 1996 to 324 in 2008.
Among the ideas suggested by fishermen Tuesday night were changing the way access is allocated now and implementing permit banking, which can help preserve groundfish access in specific geographical areas.
“There isn’t a single full-time groundfisherman left east of Port Clyde,” Ted Ames, a retired Stonington fishermen and groundfish researcher, told Hawkins. “This consolidation process is really destructive.”
Part of the problem, Ames said, is that allocation is determined as a percentage rather than by a hard figure. As stocks recover, those permit holders will have claim to larger volumes of fish, which could hamper attempts by formerly active groundfishermen to get back into the industry, he said.
Jason Joyce, a Swan’s Island resident who last year fished for groundfish using a permit acquired by Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, said he supports implementing a system that gives fishermen some control over how fish stocks are managed in their area, similar to what Maine uses to manage its lobster fishery. He suggested that in-shore fishing grounds, closer to land than Georges Bank, be reserved for owner-operators and placed off-limits for larger vessels out of larger ports that are owned and operated by companies.
“I’m a strong proponent of area management,” Joyce said.
Dana Rice, a lobster dealer from Gouldsboro and former New England Fishery Management Council member, suggested that whenever a groundfish permit gets sold, a certain percentage of its allocation — perhaps 10 percent — could be placed in a local permit bank that would make sure fishing rights stay in the area where the permit used to be based. For example, if a fisherman in Prospect Harbor sold a permit to someone in a distant port, 10 percent of that permit’s allocation would stay in the Gouldsboro area, where it could be acquired by or somehow transferred to another local fisherman.
Rice acknowledged the idea likely would not be popular, but said something must be done to preserve fishing rights for independent owner-operator fishermen in small ports.
“It is a public resource,” Rice said. “I don’t think anyone has a right to own it.”
Robin Alden, former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources and executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, said the existing rules amount to a “zero-sum game” in which active participants concentrate on protecting what they have rather than on trying to make sure there is more to go around. The wider fishing community needs reassurances that it will have future access to fish stocks in order for there to be widespread incentive for restoring those stocks, she said.
“The groundfish rules have not served the fish, certainly on this part of the coast, the way they should have,” Alden said.
The meeting in Ellsworth was the first of 10 meetings that the management council has scheduled along the East Coast, including one scheduled Jan. 18 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.
More information about Amendment 18 and how to submit comments can be found on the New England Fishery Management Council website, www.nefmc.org.
The council will accept public comment on Amendment 18 until 5 p.m. March 1. The council is not expected to take action on the possible amendment before the spring of 2013.
Follow reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.