Focus going forward should be on making the New England Council and sector management work – not on repeating unsubstantiated arguments

Monday’s Boston field hearing of the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation was good political theater.  Senator Kerry and Senator Begich from Alaska, chair of the Committee, tried their best to create a constructive and positive atmosphere for the important session.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to conclude that any serious solutions were advanced other than Senator Kerry’s announcement of his Fishery Research and Conservation Investment Act, which would channel scarce federal dollars to areas of research vital to Massachusetts fishermen. The tenor of most of the questioning, or grilling, of NOAA and NMFS seemed focused on advancing personal vendettas against Dr. Lubchenco or on scoring debating points than on working together.

I continue to be surprised by the claim—repeated several times at Monday’s hearing–that the Amendment 16 sector program has produced a “massive” redistribution of fish revenues with the top 20% of the boats in the sector fleet making 80% of the revenues now, up significantly from their alleged 67% share in 2009.

The facts at this time just don’t seem to back up this claim. First of all, a relatively small group of fishermen have been landing the bulk of the groundfish in New England for more than a decade and likely well before that. Second, NOAA’s data from the 2010-11 fishing year suggests that sectors may have been more equitable in their distributional effects in 2010 than prior programs were.

In 2009, the top-earning 20% of active multispecies vessels earned 60.3% of the fleet’s total revenues (groundfish and other species) and 68.9% of the groundfish-only revenues. In 2010, these figures increased to 65.1% and 79.9%, respectively. That 68.9% to 79.9% “shift” is what all the political noise is about.1

But looking at the revenue distribution within just the sector vessel (not common pool) fleet in 2010–remember that this fleet accounts for 98% of the groundfish allocations in 2010–the top 20% of sector vessels accounted for just 57.1% of the sector fleet’s total revenues and 67.5% of the sector fleet’s groundfish revenues. The proportionate revenue share of the top 20% vessels in sectors was lower in 2010 than it was in 2009.

How about the common pool program? In 2010, the top 20% of common pool vessels accounted for 69.6% of the all-species revenues in that fleet. The top 20% of common pool vessels with groundfish landings earned a whopping 91.2% of common pool groundfish revenues.

These numbers, however, don’t reveal the true state of revenue distribution among owners in the sector fleet in 2010 any more than they did in 2009, which is to say that they don’t reveal the true state of revenue distribution at all. It is ownership of active permits that counts. If there were any “massive redistributions” of wealth to the top organizations associated with Amendment 16, no one will know that until the organization-level data is available later this month and is compared with similar data from 2009.

Consolidation and allocation control, nonetheless, are serious issues that must be addressed.  There were fewer active vessels dividing the allocation in 2010 and the Council’s Amendment 16 allocation formula may need to be adjusted to account for new information that is coming to the Council members. Some sectors may also control too much of the allocation of particular species and could hoard their allocation without fishing it to manipulate the market or their competitors.

NOAA’s Lubchenco again stated on Monday that she and her agency share many of these concerns about consolidation and market share in New England. It was also encouraging to hear on Monday that so many politicians support changing the allocation formula to re-direct fish privileges toward the day boat fleet and small harbors. That political support will be essential in the coming year.

The focus, however, for that energy should be on the fishery management council, not Washington or NOAA. The social and economic effects of the Council’s Amendment 16 allocation formula are at the heart of the Council’s new Amendment 18. As was noted on Monday, the fisheries management council system is about the most democratic decision-making process for the allocation of the public’s natural resources in the nation and the region’s governors control the appointments for virtually all of the voting members on the council. Make it work.

Some fishermen may indeed need federal help to tide them over until this allocation issue and other management challenges like monitoring costs can be sorted out. In this tough fiscal climate in Washington, however, that case will need to be made with hard data and the support of NOAA, not the sort of rhetorical flourishes and unsubstantiated arguments that were floating around Beacon Hill on Monday.

1 The data for these calculations and those in the paragraphs below is found in Tables 14 and 15 of the NEFSC Report for Fishing Year 2010 on the Performance of the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery (May 2010-April 2011).


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