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Bill Protects Fishermen's Jobs

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Location: Unknown

Key West Citizen
By Timothy O'Hara

A bill filed this week would hold federal fishery managers accountable for the loss of commercial fishing jobs that would be incurred because of a controversial proposal to set quotas based on historical landings.

The bill is in response to a federal fishery management policy called "Catch Shares" which some argue would cut out small mom and pop operations.

The Saving Fishing Jobs Act would allow catch shares, or quotas, only if half of a given fishery's fishermen requested them and two-thirds voted to approve it. Eligible voters would be holders of permits issued under a fisheries management plan. The National Marine Fisheries Service previously could manipulate the eligible voters to lock out certain fishermen, according to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who filed the bill Monday along with two other House representatives.

The act also would require the U.S. secretary of commerce to terminate the quotas if they reduced the number of fishermen by more than 15 percent.

"During these tough economic times, the federal government should be helping small fishermen and not creating obstacles for them to make a decent living," Ros-Lehtinen said.

The proposed quotas would apportion a percentage of a fishery's overall catch, weighed in pounds, to commercial fishermen based on their historical landings. Small operations that get left out cannot fish for the species at all, or they must buy or lease fishing rights from those who have an allocation.

"I have met with many local fishermen from my congressional district and they all complain about the adverse effects of these catch-share programs," Ros-Lehtinen said in a prepared statement. "They are adamantly opposed to the privatization of one of our greatest natural resources, which is a primary component of catch shares."

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco has said her goal is "a sizable fraction of the (fishing) fleet eliminated," according to bill co-sponsor Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J.

"Catch-share programs, her signature initiative, have done just that by forcing small fishermen out," Runyan said in the same press release. "This bill will ensure that catch-share programs are shut down if they are forcing people out of work. This is a jobs bill and has the potential to save fishing jobs."

The consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch said if more quotas are implemented, many traditional fishermen will be forced out of work and seafood-based economies will crumble. The increased risk of harming oceans also could leave consumers with lower-quality seafood, the group said.

The study found that implementing such quotas in Alaska's crab fisheries cost some 1,150 fishermen their jobs and millions of crabs were wasted. The quotas give away a public resource to private interests while taxpayers foot the bill, the group's study stated.

The quotas have allowed a few companies to dominate the industry and encourages the under-reporting of crab, as low-value crab are thrown back into the sea -- often to die -- and entire catches are dumped if the price is too low. An estimated 5.8 million red king crabs were discarded into the sea in fall 2005, the first season after the quotas were implemented, the group said.

"Crab rationalization has left Alaska crabbers and coastal communities out in the cold while warming the wallets of a few individuals and corporations," said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director. "Rather than expand a failed fishery's management model, as written in the proposed Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization bills, Congress should go back to the drawing board and take an ecosystem-based approach to protecting our ocean resources."

Fishing quotas have failed to deliver on the promise of protecting marine ecosystems, but have succeeded in consolidating the right to fish into the hands of just a few companies with no concern for the health of the fisheries, Food & Water Watch said.

"Fish are a public resource," Hauter said. "Unfortunately, private investment groups and even some public interest groups have openly compared access to fish to the stock market and are treating it like an investment that can be bought and sold for personal profit."

One of the northeastern U.S.'s largest fisheries lost almost 20 percent of its boats in 2009-2010 after quotas were implemented across the entire region, according to NOAA.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in March rejected catch shares for all fish species, except golden crabs and wreckfish. The council had been researching catch shares for seven species of snapper and grouper: greater amberjack, vermillion snapper, black grouper, red grouper, golden tilefish, black sea bass and gag grouper.

It was the first federal fishery management council to reject catch shares.

Ros-Lehtinen's bill would affect only fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and New England.

NOAA defended its position on catch shares in an e-mail to The Citizen on Thursday.

"Catch shares are one option among many for fisheries management, and they can work well to give fishermen more flexibility in their businesses, such as by choosing when to fish based on weather or on current market price," Eric Schwaab, NOAA's assistant administrator and head of NOAA Fisheries, wrote. "With the full input of the public, fishery management councils make choices about how to manage their fisheries, including designing how catch shares systems will work in their regions. NOAA believes all options should be available to the regional fishery management councils to make those decisions."

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