The Future of New England Seafood

Fishing Banks: The state of play in New England

“Fishing Banks” is an exclusive Talking Fish series looking at the use of permit banks to support a diverse groundfish fleet while encouraging sustainable fishing and the continued rebuilding of fish stocks. This post is the third in the series. Read the previous post here.

In addition to the community-based permit banks I discussed in my last post, the federal government offered Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island $1,000,000 each to set up permit banks to help the states preserve continued access to fish for small-scale fishermen in small fishing communities and to lessen the effects of Amendment 16 on these fishermen.

Maine immediately accepted the federal offer and each of the other states has followed suit with some variation in design. Maine intends to enter the market, buy groundfish permits with fishing history, and re-lease the associated fishing quota to target fishermen, while Massachusetts is proposing to take a different approach by setting up a revolving loan program that would be accessed through community-based organizations.

Conservation Law Foundation and others are strong supporters of keeping the existing, private community-based permit banks like the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust as the primary mechanism for keeping New England’s fish locally caught and accessible to small-scale fishermen. Such community-level approaches can fine tune these micro-investments to local circumstances, and a community-based permit bank is accountable to local fishermen in a way that state and federal government never is. They also bring the business of fishing and fish financing closer to the docks where it belongs and where operating and business efficiencies and innovations can be readily shared for everyone’s benefit. Finally, community permit banks help “anchor” landings and fishing history to traditional fishing communities and help provide economic stability for shore-side support businesses and land uses.

The state-level permits banks should not end up being competitive with these community-based banks in ways that weaken them; that would be a bad outcome. At the same time, there is a critical role that a state permit bank could play. First, not every fishing community will have the capacity or desire to develop a community-based permit bank, and the benefits of such a tool should be available to all small-scale fishermen and fishing communities. All small-scale fishermen should have access to this subsidized quota.

Second, we see these state-led permit banks as having a critical role in ensuring that young fishermen can get into the fishery through the traditional sweat equity approach. We don’t want to see a system like some of the early catch share programs elsewhere where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars were necessary to “buy into” a fishery. A young person in New England ought to be able to get into fishing without being born into it or having to mortgage his or her future.

The private banks might serve this role locally in some cases, but they would not be under any obligation to do so. The state permit banks should backstop the community banks in this area and ensure access to new entrants. Maine actually has a lot of valuable experience with a similar program for lobstermen; you can’t just buy your way into lobstering.  The state has a form of journeyman’s program that not only provides critical crew to captains but also emphasizes the importance of stewardship principles and good fishing practices to the new fishermen.

Finally, we don’t think that the states should have to buy the quota for these entrant-level access programs in all cases. After all, this is a public resource and the state and federal managers should have the flexibility to allocate quota to these programs without having to go into the market to purchase it from current fishermen. Quota for entrant-level access programs could come from the increased quota that will be made available to fishery participants as fish populations rebuild and more fish can be caught without endangering the resource. Access to capital, whether private, public or philanthropic, shouldn’t be the only criteria that defines who gets to fish in the future.

By broadening access to fishing quota, such an allocation would also respond to the understandable criticisms of the existing program that it gave a huge economic windfall to the fishermen who fished the hardest on cod and others when the fishery was overfished and punished others who re-directed onto other more abundant species during this time. (The former fishermen were rewarded with more fishing quota because they had more landings during the qualifying period, while the latter fishermen received less quota.)

The NEFMC is launching this state permit bank program through Amendment 17, which is on the agenda for final action at this week’s June 2011 council meeting. We think Amendment 17 should be approved by the Council and NMFS, but it shouldn’t be the last word on state permit banks and access programs. We call on the state fisheries directors to work diligently with the private community-based banks to capture and expand the benefits of this new tool for current and future fishermen in their states.  Stay tuned for updates.


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