The prospect of a future

For many years now, New Englanders — undeservedly, in my view — have been regarded as troglodytes when it comes to fishery management.

But with the June vote of the New England Fishery Management Council to allocate groundfish among 19 sectors, Yankees stand at the threshold of enlightenment, not just for New England but for the nation.

Not that there aren't a million problematic details that attend the shift to sector allocations and catch shares (story, p. 22).

And not because there is a demonstrated straight line, cause-and-effect relationship between management regimes and stock health — there isn't one.

What the council has done is develop a plan that can accommodate historic fishing communities, that offers both longtime and would-be fishermen the prospect of a future consistent with their visions. There are no guarantees, but there is significant possibility.

Many of you will regard my outlook as Pollyannaish, given what will undoubtedly be some unworkable allocations. After all, if you now have only a handful of days at sea to use you are not going to fish 250 days in 2010 unless you have a pond behind your house.

On the other hand, the council gives every appearance of taking a liberal approach to so-called permit banking, which holds the potential of harvesting opportunity for someone other than the nominal holder of a permit.

Permit banking could be a double-edged sword. For example, I see no long-term benefit to fishing communities arising from open trading in permits, which would lead to speculation, inflation and, ultimately, consolidation.

On the other hand, the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust is acquiring permits to lease to fishermen. And in Maine, two local organizations and the Nature Conservancy have purchased a pair of fishing permits so fishermen in midcoast and eastern Maine, who have had a tough go of it in recent years, can conduct valuable research.

Geoff Smith, the marine program director for the conservancy's Maine field office, said the conservancy has no intention of buying up permits and putting them on the shelf. "There is an opportunity now to put them to use on the water," he said, pointing out that NMFS' strictures on effort do not facilitate industry research.

For my part, once quotas are allocated I would like to see the creation of an "allocation" bank.

Any fisherman who decided he had less quota than he could make a living with could "deposit" his allocation in the bank for a year or more. In return, he would be paid as a lessor for the use of his allocation. But he would retain his permit, keeping alive the possibility of someday re-entering the fishery as stocks recover and his share becomes viable.

The deal would be that the bank would retain a percentage of his deposit, and that in aggregate such shares could be held for new entrants to the fishery.

Any business needs new blood, and fishing is no different. Moreover, the ocean and the fish within it are not real estate in the same sense that land with trees on it is (one is property, the other is not), and we ought not to preclude access to any American with the gumption to work at commercial fishing.

I accept that we have achieved technological wherewithal today that surpasses the ability of fish to sustain themselves. But the unalterable fact is that independent fishermen have been an integral part of America's coastal communities since the 16th century and their contributions cannot be considered solely in economic terms.

I won't tell you that sector allocations guarantee the revitalization of fishing communities any more than I'll tell you that the very existence of catch shares ensures that the waters off New England will be full of fish in no time.

But as Mainers like to say, maybe we can get there from here.

* * *

What's the holdup? For months we have heard that two eminently qualified individuals, Brian Rothschild of the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology and Arne Fuglvog, a former Petersburg, Alaska, fisherman, comprise the short list of candidates to take the reins at NMFS.

In late July reliable sources were saying that the secretary of commerce has put a six-month hold on filling the position. This would extend the lame duck status of the agency's acting director, James Balsiger, and leave two good candidates to succeed him twisting in the wind.

NOAA is working "to fill this position as quickly as we can," says spokeswoman Monica Allen.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, to whom the head of NMFS will report, clearly cares very much about fishery management, but her job description surpasses the scope of fisheries.

NMFS has a full agenda, and putting a hold on the agency's top post essentially assures us that there will be no leadership from the agency on the critical issues facing U.S. fisheries in the second half of 2009.

Last time we looked, the industry and the agency could use all the leadership they could get.

— Jerry Fraser

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