EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 25, 2012

Editorial: Feds must fix fishery mess they created

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — The idea of clamping new government limits or regulations on private sector businesses is always a dicey proposition at best.

And that’s been the case within the commercial fishing industry, which is choking under government regulations and such excessive enforcement that the Commerce Department Inspector General’s office cited NOAA law enforcement in a variety of cases of wrongdoing. Commerce officials had to issue a formal apology to fishermen and hand over more than $600,000 in government reparations.

Now, however, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco and the New England Fishery Management Council have made such a mess of the New England groundfishery through Lubchenco’s “catch share” management system that they have driven the industry to the point of economic disaster — conceded in a Commerce Department announcement in September.

To their credit, NOAA regional administrator John Bullard, environmental groups, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, and a number of fishermen realize at least some steps that must be taken to fix it. That’s to put so-called accumulation caps on the amount of quota, or “catch shares,” any fishing business can control to keep the bigger businesses from gobbling the shares of smaller, independent boats that can no longer compete.

That’s right: Given the current state of the New England groundfishery, federal officials have no choice but to put new limits, new regulations on an industry that must be rescued from itself.

That should not, of course, be the usual government course of action in dealing with most businesses. Government should essentially let the free market play out — just as it should in virtually every other field.

But there’s a catch. In this case, the runaway economic system that’s now killing waterfront jobs, driving out small businesses, and consolidating more and more catch shares in the hands of fewer and bigger fishing corporations didn’t evolve as a free market on its own. It was created by the government itself thanks to Lubchenco’s catch share policies drawn from her work with the Environmental Defense Fund, the same folks who brought us the corporately driven “cap and trade” approach to confronting air pollution.

Beyond that, let’s also remember that, in setting up this monopoly-building commodities trade system, NOAA also controls the available “product” as well, setting tight limits on fishermen’s total allowable catch. Even when smaller, family-run boats do try to remain competitive, their share of the quota and the allowable catch is undercut by the bigger, more dominant boats and corporations.

It’s those scenarios that make it clear that the catch share system— while clearly working for Lubchenco and her shameful recessionary goal of fleet consolidation — is indeed creating a disaster for fishermen and New England’s fishing communities. NOAA and Commerce officials owe it to those communities to undo the damage.

Over a longer haul, that should mean the abolition and abandonment of the catch share system as we know it. But in the short term, that must mean clamping accumulation limits on the amount of quota any company can control, or taking other steps to ensure that smaller, independent fishermen are not driven out of business by their own government.

Each day the status quo remains in place is another step in a path to an even deeper economic fishery disaster.