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Portsmouth Herald - Obama nominee admits flaws in fisheries' "catch-share' system

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By Michael McCord

During congressional testimony last week, a presidential nominee acknowledged "problems" in the fisheries "Catch Share" program for New England fishermen.

Dr. Rebecca Blank, President Obama's nominee for deputy secretary of commerce, told Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, that while catch share is just one fisheries management approach and is working in other areas of the country, more "transparency and communication and collaboration" would be important moving forward. Blank also said there needs to better explanation of the science about fish stock sizes and catch limits.

"I think that there has not been as much consultation back and forth in terms of NOAA's interactions with some of the fisheries councils in an open and completely transparent way with some of the fisheries councils in the New England region," Blank said to the Senate Commerce Committee. "We've obviously in the past had some problems with our law enforcement that I think we've completely cleaned up. And I think we've sometimes not been quite as transparent as we need to be about the science."

The fight over catch share, the latest fisheries management mandate implemented in 2010, has become a political flashpoint and a major issue for many New Hampshire commercial fishermen.

Ayotte and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., filed legislation last month in response to the heightened concerns by fishermen in their respective states that the federal catch share programs "are needlessly devastating New England's fishing community." The "Saving Fishing Jobs Act of 2011" would force the Secretary of Commerce, which oversees commercial fishing nationwide, to scrap the catch share system if fleet job losses passed the 15 percent mark while also for calling a decreased federal involvement in subsidizing enforcement programs. Ayotte has called fishing a "noble profession" and said regulatory changes are necessary to save their jobs.

"Catch share programs are driving New Hampshire's fishermen out of business," Ayotte said. "This legislation would help level the playing field for independent small fishermen by scrapping unreasonable federal mandates that are killing jobs while giving local fishing communities more control during the program establishment process."

The catch share system, which went into effect in May 2010, is the latest attempt by the federal government to balance the need for rebuilding depleted groundwater fish stocks with the economic needs of fishermen to stay in business. The system replaced the "days at seas" formula that was also criticized as being overregulated. Catch share sets catch allocation limits and sector assignments for fishermen. But many smaller boat owners in New Hampshire criticize the system for a faulty allocation formula that benefits larger fishing operations.

Proponents of catch share say the system has worked successfully elsewhere and will in New England if given time. The policy-setting New England Fisheries Management Council overwhelmingly approved implementing the system. The lone dissenting vote was by Hampton fisherman David Goethel. C.M. "Rip" Cunningham, chairman of the 18-member NEFMC, said for all its flaws the new program offers more accountability, greater harvesting and marketing flexibility and keeps regulators out of micromanaging individual operators - all while dealing with the reality that about half of the 20 groundfish species are still being overfished. The NEFMC held a two-day workshop in Portland, Maine, last month and heard from more than 70 fishermen about the pros and cons of the system. The NEFMC is expected to make a catch share modification recommendation for 2012 by the end of this month.

Proponents of catch share also pointed out that saving jobs may not be realistic in an industry heavily overcapitalized in the mid-1980s before fish stock saving regulations were put into place. "What we've seen since the mid-1990s has been a continuing contraction of boats and crew positions," said Richard Allen, a former NEFMC member and Rhode Island fisherman. "Of course, you are going to lose crew positions. We didn't have enough fish to sustain the massive structure in the industry."

The Ayotte sponsored bill was referred to the Senate Commerce Committee. Al Killeffer, a spokesman for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she "is committed to working with our small-boat fishing industry to protect their access to sustainable fishing stocks. She believes we need to improve the 'catch share' system to better benefit small boats."


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