US fisheries: Frustration, indignation, uproar

11 Jan 2011

I don’t remember such an upheaval in the American fisheries. Neither does Bob Jones, the Director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association.

He wrote to me that the request by significant sectors of the fishing industry to dismiss Prof. Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, is unprecedented. I guess that the lawsuits by fishermen, Mayors of two of the US’s largest fishing ports (New Bedford and Gloucester), Congressmen, Senators and a Governor, and private fishing interests from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, questioning the legality of NOAA/NMFS regulatory activities, are also unprecedented.

In the midst of this uproar resides Jane Lubchenco, whom President Obama nominated as the NOAA head and put in charge of close to US$5bn budget and of some 13,000 scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats, as well as a small army policing the US fisheries.

Making news

Prof. Lubchenco was nominated by Nature the ‘Newsmaker of the Year’, mainly for being at the centre of the government's response to the recent oil-spill disaster in the Bay of Mexico. But, she made fisheries news, too. Lubchenco’s declared goal is reducing fishing fleets, and she relentlessly pushes the fishing industry into a catch shares (quotas) system. But, she failed to persuade most American fishermen who in February, 2010, staged a mass rally in Washington, D.C. With time, the introduction of the catch shares combined with reduction of total allowed catch (TAC) in some stocks, only amplified resistance and even wrath within the industry and those fishing communities in which significant incomes are extracted from fishery-associated activities. NOAA's actions so upset some fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that they displayed a life-sized mock-up of Lubchenco hanging fishermen. Maine Senator (R.) Olympia Snowe simply said that Lubchenco "sold out" the interests of US fishermen. 

Defending her campaign,in a recent letter to Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina the beleaguered Lubchenco wrote: “Catch shares are a tool for ending overfishing in a manner that provides the greatest flexibility for fishermen…But since it is merely a tool…it is not the cause of the loss of employment in the fishing communities”.

This line of reasoning can convince neither the owner-operators nor their crews. While the system aims at and succeeds in reducing fleets size and hence jobs, the only flexibility left to fishermen, whenever quotas shrink, is to sell or rent away their shares and look for another job.

“Scallops are at the second record high and left to die of old age” wrote Mary Beth de Poutiloff, a Maine fisherwoman, and the new abundance of scallops has been indeed confirmed by unconnected observations. Nonetheless, the shrinking catch shares “…left my scallop fishing family only 4 fishing days a year” she complained. “Why is NOAA favouring huge, corporate fleets while the small boats are practicing sustainable fishing? Only the wealthy will be able to purchase fish and fishing rights. Real fishermen will become sharecroppers in such neo-feudalism.”

“When your kids say, 'Dad, why are you so miserable?' ...What do you say to the kids, 8 and 10 years old” asks Jim Keding, a now unemployed fisherman. “What do you say?"

Insult to injury

According to Nils Stolpe, a well-known commercial fisheries consultant, who produces FishNet USA, Prof. Lubchenco has maintained close ties to blatantly anti-fishing ENGOs while steering NOAA on a collision course with fishermen, and to add insult to injury, she appointed a criminal investigator disgraced elsewhere to oversee New Bedford’s fishery industry.

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang says that NOAA’s regulations adversely impact fishing families and communities: "NOAA is acting with cold-blooded indifference, as if they are proofing mathematical equations, not addressing a human crisis…Two-thirds of New Bedford's fishing boats are tied up, or are fishing very little. Shore-side businesses and services are hurting”.

Government‘s statistics do not support and justify NOAA’s two-pronged strategy of catch-shares and quota reductions, report jointly the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the University of Massachusetts. Accordingly an additional 14,500 metric tons of ground fish could be harvested without causing overfishing. On the request of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick sent him this report months ago, along with a request to amend NOAA’s decisions, but so far Locke hasn’t reacted.

Mike Johnson of New Hampshire wrote that Dr Jane Lubchenco designed the catch shares plan when she was vice chairperson of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), (her plan was supported by former President George W Bush, reported Christine Shearer in 't r u t h o u t Report'), and later imported it into Obama’s administration. EDF’s board of trustees represents parties that want to convert fish resources into tradable market assets, which inevitably lead to consolidation of the fishery in the hands of large owners and corporate interests. EDF is one of the nation's largest and most influential environmental ENGOs that promotes the idea of market dynamics as the best medicine for environmental problems. According to Richard Gaines of the Gloucester Daily Times, EDF's Vice President David Festa, a longtime Lubchenco’s close associate, has been urging institutional investors to buy shares of groundfish, promising high returns.

According to S M Ouellette, of a Gloucester law firm, NOAA is limiting catches much more than its own science indicates. The Northeast is losing annually some $350,000,000 in monkfish, groundfish and swordfish landings. Considering also skates and butterfish, jobs and tax revenues, some $1.5-2bn is lost. 

Taking fishing out of communities

With the East Coast in the lead, many fishing people in the West started protesting that catch shares would take them out of business and of their livelihoods. They accuse NOAA of ‘social engineering and market manipulation’ that would displace ‘the little guys’, take the fishing out of communities, and devastate the West Coast fisheries. Voices from Alaska, where the crab fishery was ‘rationalised’ over five years ago, are telling about extreme quota consolidation and serious social repercussions of the quota regime.

Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), warned against allowing "free market ideologues to run the show." Congressman Peter DiFazio, D-Oregon, said, "The last thing I want is Goldman Sachs buying up all the shares of a fishery in three years, and (having) derivatives of fishery shares being sold on Wall Street." The Food and Water Watch ENGO staged an anti-catch-shares demonstration at Eugene, Oregon, calling Congressmen to resist devastation of fishing communities and to join the East Coast lawsuit.

I too have a problem with the various tradable quota systems, including the US catch shares. Not that they may not fit certain fisheries – but because they’ve been presented and introduced under false pretences. Their advocates insist that catch shares:

  1. Reduce wasteful fishing practices: Wrong; they cause wasteful discards, often of marketable fish, especially wherever they’re applied in multi-species fisheries, or, if fishermen exceed their share, they have to buy more expensive quota, discard good fish, or cheat.
  2. Improve fishing safety: This is true only where they replace a management by TAC and catch-as-catch-can fisheries. Wherever there’s unreasonable overcapacity, as it had been in the halibut fishery, any other system, quotas including, represents improvement. This doesn’t prove a thing where capture capacity is reasonable respective fish resources. In some cases, the effect of individual quotas on safety was quite negative, for example, where fishermen fearing that they won’t catch their quota within a permitted period, kept fishing under dangerous weather conditions.
  3. Increases profits: Yes, but only of those able to stick to their quotas and acquire those of others. This works in favour of non-fishing owners and companies, employing hired, often foreign low-paid crews. Hired hands hardly enjoy those profits.
  4. Provide a clear economic rationale for conserving resources: Not necessarily. This might be true would the catch shares remain in the hands of local fishermen and communities. But, when they unavoidably consolidate in the hands of major outside owners, sheer commercial and financial short-range considerations would prevail. Thus, enforcement and monitoring are essential in ITQ systems, and the two countries that pioneered ITQs - New Zealand and Iceland - have some of the highest costs of management per fishing vessel.

No proof

There’s no proof whatsoever that quota systems prevent, and even reverse, the collapse of fish stocks, and in some fisheries the opposite has happened; they don’t reduce ecological waste, such as discards and bycatch; they may stabilise fishery landings only if the TAC is correct and enforced; and they provide stability through well-paid, safer, sustainable jobs only to the surviving minority.

Last February I suggested on this page to Prof. Lubchenko to consult her European counterparts, who after decades of quota-based Common Fisheries Policy seem to be admitting its conceptual failure, and Joe Borg, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, who towards the end of his term suggestedreplacing quotas by a system, which can effectively reduce such negative quota features, like massive discards. Well, evidently, she didn’t.

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