Port of last resort
Running for president some years ago, Sen. Bob Dole recounted for a Maine audience a confrontation with a malcontent at an earlier stop along the campaign trail.
"My name is [Mr. Smith], and I came here today to tell you that you're a no-good SOB," the man stood up and hollered. "I wouldn't vote for you if you were the last man on Earth!"
Without missing a beat Dole turned to a staffer and said, "Put Mr. Smith down as, 'undecided.'"
Dole's humor spoke to the witless optimism and yearning for approval that are the twin pillars of the political personality.
In this instance the political personality I am writing about resides not within an individual's striving persona but in the federal agency that oversees marine fisheries.
As a result of its fecklessness, New England groundfishermen, neutered by quotas and the push for catch share management, find themselves hoping and praying for a $100 million buyout that is antithetical to everything this industry stands for. Eight senators are lobbying the Obama administration for the buyout, as well as an additional $50 million for the region's fishing communities.
I feel about buyouts as Mr. Smith felt about Dole. Standing in for Dole is NOAA, which most New Englanders would not commission to run an aquarium.
Nevertheless, taxpayers are being asked to pick up the tab for its myopic fishery management. The agency is so focused on reducing the number of overfished species that it has become indifferent — or oblivious — to the devastating impacts of consolidation.
For example, the Associated Press noted that landings in Rockland, Maine, declined from 16 million pounds in 1980 to zero last year; over the same period, landings in Newport, R.I., declined from 14 million pounds to 39,000 (a dump-truck load). In 1995, Marblehead, Mass., landed a half-million pounds of groundfish; South Bristol, Maine, landed 870,000; Harwich Port, Mass., 1.2 million. The total for each port last year was zero. Not what I'd call overfishing.
Yet, NOAA, prodded by advocates, America's obsession with "sustainability," and incompetent national news organizations, reduces quotas and eliminates boats via catch shares. Catch shares have never been about making management effective. They are about making management easy. Eliminate enough boats and eventually the remnant will be profitable. What an inspiration!
Arbitrary rebuilding calendars mean that for far too many Yankee fishermen, stock recovery and advances in bycatch avoidance are meaningless. Yet earnest efforts to kindle conversations about economic sustainability are met with derision. And $150 million is hardly fair compensation for the four centuries New England has supplied our country with fish, 400 years during which few fishermen got rich and many died at sea.
Rather than facilitate one-time subsidies and longtime unemployment, NOAA needs to rebuff the industry's finger-wagging critics and put its shoulder behind legislation to remove the arbitrary rebuilding deadlines imposed by Congress in favor of schedules supported by research. These promise significant economic benefit, and if coupled with no-discard regimes, a salutary impact on both landings and mortality.
In the free enterprise system, a buyout ought to be a port of last resort — and the smaller, the better.
Who can be undecided about that?
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