Fishing job losses continue as landings rise, NOAA says

Fishing boats are tied up at a wharf in Portland, Maine, in this file photo. NOAA Fisheries said this week that job losses have continued as the industry consolidates.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Fishing boats are tied up at a wharf in Portland, Maine, in this file photo. NOAA Fisheries said this week that job losses have continued as the industry consolidates.
Posted Aug. 01, 2012, at 5:47 a.m.

New England’s commercial fishing industry continued its consolidation through last October, with fewer vessels and crew taking more trips and catching more fish with greater gross value, according to figures released Tuesday by NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Regional Office.

The number of vessels in the active fleet dropped by 10.3 percent between 2010 and 2011, and by 20.3 percent between 2009 and 2011, based on analyses of the first six months through October of the fishing years that began each May 1.

The number of crew positions is also down, by 13.2 percent over the two years, and 9.8 percent just from 2010 and 2011. The two-year period marks the time since NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council converted New England’s groundfishery to the controversial catch share management system.

Over the two-year period, gross weight of fish landed increased 20.1 percent, while gross revenues from the landings climbed 38.5 percent to $195 million, but a NOAA spokeswoman acknowledged Tuesday what many in industry have been saying — that revenue figures do not reflect relative profitability, because they don’t take into account the leasing cost of catch shares as fishermen and businesses buy and trade catch share quotas.

NOAA has not yet completed its analysis of the full 2011 fishing year that ended April 30, 2012, NOAA’s Maggie Mooney-Seus said.

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick last November urged then-Commerce Secretary John Bryson to acknowledge that federal fisheries policies have brought economic disaster to coastal ports. Now, more than eight months later, Massachusetts has not received a response, although NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco promised Sen. John Kerry at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October to give the state’s application fast track attention.

Congressman John Tierney said he is “appalled that the governor has still not heard back from Commerce.”

“I understand better than anyone how squeezed the budgets are for money, but I can’t even start to chase federal money or go to the Senate floor without a disaster declaration as the predicate,” Kerry said in an email.

No one from Lubchenco’s office or the Commerce Department — without a secretary since Bryson resigned last month following a pair of hit-and-run southern California highway accidents — responded to calls seeking comment Tuesday. Patrick’s office also declined to comment.

Patrick’s filing had been based on two earlier socio-economic studies he commissioned — the first was a case study of one group of mostly day-boat fishermen from small ports arrayed along the South Shore; the second was an all-ports break-even analysis, conducted jointly by state, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and NOAA scientists. The new data released Tuesday parallels the previous, portraying an industry that, while not losing market value, is contracting in the number of businesses and jobs, an outcome that has been flagged as a prescription for social and economic decline. NOAA figures had shown previously that the first year of catch shares in 2010-2011 brought a loss of 21 boats out of 96 vessels operating out of Gloucester alone.

“Most importantly, in 2010, approximately 80 percent of the gross revenues resulted from landings from only 20 percent of active vessels,” Sen. John Kerry said in written testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee meeting in Boston last Oct. 3. “That clearly threatens the future of small boat fishing in Massachusetts.

“I’ll tell you what’s gone forever … small businesses have gone,” added Rep. William Keating, whose South Shore district includes the small ports along the curve of Massachusetts Bay and whose day boats were the focus of the socio-economic case study cited by the governor.

Eighteen days after the Commerce Committee hearing, at the foot at Gloucester’s Man at the Wheel, Sen Scott Brown said, “NOAA won’t stop until this statue right here will be the last fisherman standing in Massachusetts.”

Patrick had highlighted the harm caused to the economy by the catch share system. Citing the two scientific studies showing that “catch shares have had a devastating impact on the commonwealth’s groundfish fishery,” Patrick asked for a federal disaster declaration and $21 million in assistance last Nov. 15.

Since the filing, nearly all market indicators for the Northeast fishing industry have turned negative, and accelerated. The inshore fleet is facing a possible shutdown next May to conserve Gulf of Maine cod stocks, and off shore around Georges Bank, cod and other stocks have been assessed to be weaker than expected and hoped.

“It appears certain now that the catch level for fishing year 2012 beginning on May 1, 2012, will result in the collapse of many small business fishing operations,” Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, wrote in a letter to the governor’s of the five coastal states in New England. “This holds true for all vessel sizes and fishing gears throughout the region. This is truly a regional crisis.”

Consolidation was the aim of NOAA administrator Lubchenco via dynamics unleashed by the May 2010 onset of catch shares in New England’s groundfishery. Catch share trading primes the industry for external investment, and rewards concentrations of capital, which invariably drives out small businesses, according to the consumer group, Food & Water Watch, which has studied catch share systems on a global scale.

In a written answer to questions by the Times in April 2009 soon after President Obama’s nominee took office, Lubchenco said her goal was to see “a sizable fraction of the fleet” removed from the water.

(c)2012 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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