High and Dry – The NE Council Leaves Scallopers at the Dock, Again

2 Feb 2021

By Jeff Pike

Printed in the February edition of Commercial Fisheries News. Reprinted by permission.

Something is off track at the New England Fishery Management Council, where scallopers are shut out and frustrated.

Just a few months ago, the Council was finalizing its 2021 priorities and considering the recommendations of its advisory panels and committees. In this case, the Scallop Advisory Panel (AP) and Committee recommended that the Council conduct public discussions in 2021 about a leasing option for the fishery, an approach supported by Council staff. In fact, since 2018, the AP has voted repeatedly to include leasing in the Council’s priorities.

Normally, across the U.S. fishery management structure, such recommendations are respected – especially when they involve just starting a conversation about options. Scallop fishermen have looked forward to talking about leasing within the Council process as an option to ease the increasing operational challenges and resource uncertainties.

But Council leadership quickly scuttled the recommendation, using arguments against leasing as a reason not to even start the discussion. In other words, they had a side to take in the upcoming debate, and used their positions to make sure they won the debate – by preventing anyone from discussing the issue at all.

That is unacceptable and reflects a breakdown in the process.

The outdated management approach for the limited access (LA) scallop fleet of one boat-one permit-one allocation has created tremendous inefficiencies, excess fishing capacity, increased operational costs, and unnecessary safety risks. There are simply too many boats spending too few days on the water.

A typical full-time LA scallop vessel harvests its annual allocation in around 70 days, leaving vessels tied to the dock more than 80 percent of the year. The only growth option is to buy another permit, which means buying another vessel. This is a prohibitive option for the average independent owner, since it forces the owner to take on the redundant capital costs, insurance fees, and maintenance expenses for a second vessel.

Although one vessel could easily harvest the allocation of two permits, the fleet has no flexibility to do so. With harvests predicted to decline, the lack of flexibility will only cost more and leave more boats tied to the dock for more days. The current system also means that if a captain or crew member gets sick (a serious possibility in the age of COVID-19) or a vessel breaks down, there is no way to fish the allocation assigned to that boat. Now, more than ever, the fleet needs flexibility and options.

In 2019, industry members suggested that the Council prioritize the discussion and development of a voluntary leasing project for the LA fishery. Under their proposal, permit owners would be able to lease out part or all of their allocation for use on a different vessel, either one they own or one owned by someone else.

While current ownership and control caps would continue, this would introduce flexibility and improve efficiency without affecting harvest levels. It would also have positive effects on crew safety, dockyard activity, and fleet resilience. Our industry survey indicated that the average oldest boat in the fleet is about 40 years old and, if leasing were an option, most owners would replace older vessels or upgrade existing vessels.

The leasing proposal didn’t make it on the Council’s busy priority list for 2020 as it completed its important work on Amendment 21 in the Gulf of Maine. However, the Scallop AP, Scallop Committee, and National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator encouraged the owners to come back in 2020 and pursue getting on the 2021 work agenda.

The Scallopers Campaign is a result of that effort, and we spent 2020 working within the Council process to advance an LA leasing program. As a first order of business, the campaign developed a sound set of guiding principles, including a firm commitment to “protect other fisheries from negative impacts of any approved program” and “ensure ‘No Harm’ to non-participating scallop vessels.”

When the Council considered its 2021 priorities this past October, the AP, Scallop Committee, and Council staff all recommended including listening sessions on leasing. Despite this overwhelming support from the industry and the Council’s advisory bodies, Council leaders killed the request to discuss leasing. Their action prevents needed improvements to the management of this fishery and undermines confidence in the Council process.

Scallopers have little recourse but to reengage the Council next year. They face mounting economic and operational challenges – and the law gives them few options in pursuing needed policy changes.

They could petition the Biden Administration to use existing authority under the Magnuson Stevens Act to develop a leasing program for the LA scallop fishery, especially since the change would have immediate environmental benefits. They could also take the issue to Congress, where members of the House and Senate are open to helping American fisheries as engines of local and state economies. But, of course, if scallopers choose one of these options, Council leaders will no doubt claim they can’t support discussing leasing in 2022, since the vessel owners took the issue “outside the Council process.” It’s a perfect Catch-22.

One thing is certain: Scallopers will remain vigilant and vocal about the need for change and the responsibilities of the Council to respond to industry concern and input. The fleet deserves a say in its future.

Jeff Pike got his start as a commercial fisherman in Chatham and served as chief of staff of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. For the past 20 years he has been in private practice representing commercial fishermen from Maine to Alaska.