New Quota System Called An Elaborate Theft Of Public Fishery Resources

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Posted by on June 29, 2009 at 17:08:10:

Far from the coast and the affected communities, the Pacific Fishery Management Council last Thursday in Spokane approved its groundfish "catch share" plan (Amendment 20) for the west coast trawl fleet. The plan allocates most of the available west coast groundfish stocks to a fleet of 120 or fewer trawl vessel owners.

The individual allocations will be determined based on the catch history of the permit trawl vessel or vessels. The actual amount of quota given out to the trawl vessel owners is expected to be considerably higher than the amount of their catch history since it includes the quota of trawlers retired from the fishery from a 2004 buy-back program (see following story) and the TAC (total allowable catch) for many groundfish stocks are expected to increase as species rebuild. This is a real bonanza for current trawl permit owners, but a potential big bust for other traditional groundfish fishermen and coastal communities.

Under Amendment 20, quota holders will be available to consolidate operations, which could result in fewer than 40 vessels coastwide fishing the overall groundfish quota and far fewer trawlers if some of those vessels opt for longline or hook-and-line fishing. Traditional hook-and-liners, however, if they seek to purchase any of that quota being given the trawlers, could only use that quota on a vessel with a trawl permit. Thus, the qualifying trawl vessel owners get a double shot at the prize – they are awarded valuable quota that they can then sell or lease and, second, that quota can only be taken on a vessel owned or purchased from an existing quota holder.

Under the PFMC’s trawl groundfish scheme, many coastal communities will find themselves without access to fish off their own shores if the expected massive consolidation of vessels occurs. In 1976 and before, fishermen off the coast watched foreign trawlers scoop up groundfish and other species 12 miles offshore and take the fish back to Russia, Japan, Korea, wherever. Now, those same fishermen and communities could again be watching helplessly from the shore as trawlers from another port, such as Coos Bay, scoop up the groundfish outside of 3 miles offshore, taking them back for processing in a far distant port.

Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), called the plan "a massive give-away of public trust fisheries resources under the guise of conservation." He warned that "this ‘catch share’ program threatens smaller fishing communities’ access to the resources they depend on while providing no additional conservation benefits."

Unlike the "catch share" program being proposed for New England, the PFMC scheme does not allocate between gear or geographic sectors. The allocation between gear sectors was done through Amendment 21, approved earlier this year, where the historic (not simply 2-year history) of the open access and fixed gear permitted fishery was largely ignored when the lion’s share of the resource was handed over to the trawl fleet. Many of the 80-odd species that make up the groundfish complex can only be harvested by trawl, but more than a half dozen, such as sablefish and lingcod, can and historically have been taken by hook-and-line fisheries. The hook-and-line fish are of a higher quality and thus bring a higher price. Those fisheries also have far less bycatch than larger trawlers.

Individual fishing quotas (IFQs) -- now called "catch shares" -- were initially proposed by free-market economic idealogues and pushed strongly by the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration has opted to continue this policy, creating a task force to develop recommendations on implementing these programs into American fisheries. Catch shares divide the available catch of an individual species into shares awarded to those in the fishery based on past participation and other criteria. Shareholders are free to buy and sell shares from others awarded quota. This then becomes a right to a percentage of each year’s catch, based on the shares held by an individual.

PCFFA has voiced strong opposition to unfettered catch share programs. These programs often lead to massive consolidation, large corporate take-overs of what were once family-owned fishing businesses, and non-fishermen ownership of quota shares -- effectively turning fishing men and women into "seafaring sharecroppers." Grader noted that if catch share programs are to be implemented that "they need to be tightly regulated with requirements that holders of quota share participate in the fishery and are limited from acquiring an excessive share of quota."

Grader also noted that the Council’s catch share program is sloppily designed. There are currently no requirements that quota holders participate in the fishery. The Council failed on three separate occasions to hold back quota for smaller fishing communities to access. Without these holdbacks smaller fishing communities will lose access to their own traditional fishing grounds. Additionally, according to the Council’s own analysis, the high accumulation limits they approved could lead to a situation where less than 40 boats own 90% of the groundfish in U.S. waters from the Mexican border to Canadian border.

"Make no mistake, this poorly crafted program will significantly alter the character of the entire West Coast fishing industry," said Larry Collins, a San Francisco commercial fisherman and Vice-President of the PCFFA. "Smaller operators and ports will be gone, replaced by fewer and ever larger trawl vessels towing larger nets that will be concentrated in a few ports in the Northwest."

The trawl catch shares program has been sold as a way to promote conservation; however, the plan that the Council adopted provides no additional conservations benefits. In fact, the program may actually thwart efforts to develop a more conservation oriented fishery on the West Coast. "If this plan is supposed to be about conservation, why was no analysis done to examine whether allocating more fish to sectors that are known to fish cleaner?", asked Larry Collins, "This isn't about conservation, this is an outright theft of public trust resources." "We urge Dr. Lubchenco and others at NOAA to reconsider this poorly designed plan," said Larry Collins, "It has no protections for fishing communities and does not add any additional conservation benefits to the fishery. The NOAA catch share task force needs to develop strong national standards, such as owner-on-board requirements, in order to prevent regional Councils from developing plans like this."

For more information see www.pcouncil.org/decisions/0609decisions.pdf. For more information about the NOAA Catch Share Task Force see www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2009/20090623_catchshare.html and www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/domes_fish/catchshare/index.htm.

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