A Brief Explanation of Groundfishing in New England and How the Catch Share System of Fisheries Management Works

In 2010, New England Fisheries Management Council implemented a Catch Share system for the regions groundfish industry (groundfish meaning bottom dwellers like haddock, cod, pollock, redfish, flounders and more). Catch shares are a form of fisheries management that turn public fish into private property. They split up the fishery’s Total Allowable Catch (TAC) into “slices of pie.” Certain fishermen were granted a “slice of the pie” based on their landings during the qualifying period from 1996 to 2006. If you fished during this period and still had possession of your permit from those years, you were allocated a catch share based on your landings during this qualifying period. This meant you owned the rights to catch a certain amount of each species, every year, forever. The amount of fish you have on your permit is called “quota” and the number of pounds of each species you have the right to catch each year is based on that year's stock assessments. Your permit, now possibly worth hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight, is in your possession, can be passed down to a family member like a deed to a home, and can stay in your family’s possession forever. What you do with the quota you now have is up to you… If you decide to fish less or not at all, you can stay at home and lease your fish out to other fishermen; if you decide to fish more, you can supplement your shares by leasing from other fishermen. Alternatively, you can sell your entire permit to the highest bidder. Technically, you don’t need to fish at all however your permit must be attached to a vessel. Some fishermen who have retired have actually attached their permits (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) to a skiff that sits in their backyard. We call these fishermen “Slipper Captains” as they simply lease their fish and make money off active fishermen.


This system of buying, trading and leasing takes place within a cooperative called a “sector.” A sector consists of a group of fishermen and a sector manager. The fishermen buy, sell and trade quota among each other, with the sector manager that brokers the deals. Fishermen who have no quota of their own must join a sector to get access to quota and all fishermen must abide by the rules and regulations that the sector board and sector manager put together in their sector operations plan. The sector board is responsible for writing their own rules, including deciding how many pounds of each species a fisherman will need to be able to leave the dock. This threshold can change week to week based on their landings and other factors. 


Why was this system put in place anyway? 


In certain instances, catch shares have been credited with restoring fisheries in Alaska and New Zealand. From the start, large groups like The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and the Walton Foundation pushed for the implementation of catch shares. To some active fishermen at the time, catch shares sounded like a good deal because they would be awarded the security of owning the rights to the fish. If one fishermen missed a fishing season due to an injury, they could stay home and lease their quota to other fishermen who might want to fish more that season. However, other fishermen warned policymakers that fisheries access would migrate from independent businesses to multi-national corporations as a result of catch shares. These fishermen were ignored and even silenced. In the winter of 2019, Bregal Equity, a multi-billion dollar firm began acquiring fishing boats, permits, quota and processing facilities. We are now seeing major consolidation of the industry, as the highest bidder wins access to the marine resources. 


Is it a coincidence that one of the main players who pushed for catch shares since the beginning, The Nature Conservancy, now owns a big chunk of New England’s groundfish and that their donor-bought quota is contracted to two sectors, making their discounted quota virtually untouchable unless you align with their values and join their sector? What’s happening is privatization of the marine resource, with big entities saying “If you do/say X, we will give you access…” 


What does this look like for New England Fishmongers? 


For younger fishermen who don’t have extensive catch histories during the qualifying period of 1996-2006, there is virtually no option of purchasing a permit that has enough quota to fish for the year.  This means right off the bat, younger fishermen need to fork out considerably large checks to their sectors to be able to go fishing. Younger, new fishermen aren’t as efficient as the seasoned veteran fishing… not every fishing trip will be a success for new fishermen. Like any business, mistakes are made and there is a learning curve. Captain Tim’s fishing career started at a young age, however it took him years to be fully “dialed in” to hook fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Throughout the year, he has to supplement his share by leasing quota from other fishermen, including retired fishermen that no longer fish, large environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, and corporations like Bregal Equity. It would cost over $1M for New England Fishmongers to purchase a permit that has enough quota to last a full fishing year without having to lease quota. 


As a result, we are seeing several fishermen who did not receive an allotment from the Catch Share system leave the fishery. These are the small owner-operator fishermen in New England who just can’t seem to make it, leaving the big guys to get bigger. 


To put this in perspective...


Fishermen must invest in purchasing quota to leave the dock in search of fish, however some days you come back to the dock and the value of your catch is less than what you already paid in quota bills. When relying on the fluctuating open market fish prices, some days you make money, but some days you actually go backwards. 


For people who may have a tough time understanding what this means, imagine you had to pay anywhere between 5% to 100% of your income to someone that used to do your job years ago, or someone that has purchased the rights to your work. Some days it’s more, some days it’s less, but the workload never changes. On average, we pay around 30% of our yearly income to someone who owns the rights to the fish, and leases them to us while we fish and they are at home. This would turn a $56K a year salary into a $39K salary. Would this jump in salary affect you and/or your family? 

Thank you for supporting local fishermen.

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