Fish rules trap boat owners

Massachusetts fishermen’s earnings sank by 14.2 percent in 2011 — a record drop that some blame on the first full year of new federal catch limits, the Herald has found.

“They’re just killing us,” said Plymouth fisherman Jim Keding, who sold his boat and downsized into a smaller home because he couldn’t make ends meet under the new system.

A Herald review of U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis figures shows that workers in the state’s “Forestry, Fishing and Related Activities” sector earned $54 million less in 2011 than they did in 2010.

The 14.2 percent drop represents the largest such Massachusetts decline in the two decades the bureau has kept such records.

Figures for the fishing industry alone aren’t available yet. But bureau economist David Lenze said fishermen’s earnings account for the bulk of the “Forestry, Fishing and Related Activities” category in Massachusetts.

Some fishermen blame their floundering fortunes on a “catch-share” system the government put in place in May 2010 to protect groundfish such as cod. The program gives each boat a license to catch a certain amount of fish based on what the vessel netted from 1996 to 2006.

The system replaced an older program that regulated such things as each ship’s allowable days at sea.

Fishermen like Keding say they did OK under the old system, but got quotas too small to make a living under the new one.

“What (the catch-share program) did is take the in-shore fleet and just ruin it,” said Keding, who caught 72,000 pounds of groundfish in 2009 but only got a 17,000-pound quota for 2010.

Critics claim the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deliberately set quotas low to force “small-boat” fishermen to quit the industry and sell their licenses to bigger players.

“The government has been pushing a bureaucratic agenda for a very long time (of) requiring the consolidation of the fishing fleet,” said former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, who helped lead an unsuccessful lawsuit against the new system.

“Approximately half the fleet is tied up in New Bedford — and I know it’s the same everywhere you go (around) New England,” said Lang, now a private lawyer helping plaintiffs appeal their lawsuit loss.

NOAA spokeswoman Marjorie Mooney-Seus acknowledged “some smaller vessels have definitely had a harder time” under the new program. But she said government efforts to revive fish stocks meant quotas would have fallen even under the old system.

Mooney-Seus also claimed the local fishing fleet has been consolidating for years anyway — “largely due to the condition of fish stocks, (which) are a lot smaller than they’ve historically been.”


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