Death of an Industry: The President's Impoverishment of America's Fishermen
Déjà vu: President Obama vacationed again on Martha's Vineyard. While Barry lazed here last year, the fishermen of New England ran a full-page ad in the Vineyard Gazette titled "Mr. President, We Need Your Help." The fishermen came to the Vineyard in their boats and paraded in the harbor to emphasize their plight. The American Thinker ran a piece on the events.
The ad was in the form of a letter from Russell Sherman, the captain of the fishing vessel Lady Jane out of Gloucester, MA. The letter was well-written, elegant in its simplicity and comprehensive in its content, befitting Captain Sherman's Harvard education. It read in part:
My business is only one of hundreds facing extinction. While there will be a small handful of "winners" under these new rules [Catch Shares], the vast majority of us will be losers. And when we "losers" are forced out, jobs will be lost, coastal communities gutted, and crucial commercial fishing infrastructure gone forever. ...
Mr. President, we desperately need your leadership.
How much help did the fishermen get from the president? None! Nada! Not even an acknowledgement of their efforts. Not even a receipt from the White House for the copy of the letter they sent directly to the president by "Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested."
And what has happened to the fishermen since? How has the past year gone for them? Badly!
- Catch shares (see Nils Stolpe's "Is this the future of fishing?") has worked to perfection...if you are a malevolent, vindictive, bureaucratic eco-zealot. As Dr. Jane Lubchenco predicted, the fishing fleet has consolidated -- a euphemism for "most of the fleet has been driven out of business."
- The heavy-handed regulatory management continues, as shown by a recent independent review by Preston Pate. Fishing jobs are gone; NOAA jobs are not. The number of regulators and observers assigned to each fisherman has increased dramatically. Needless to say, this is not the help the fishermen were seeking.
- The lawsuit brought by the fishermen based on NOAA exceeding their mandate in imposing catch shares has been rejected based on NOAA having the authority to do just about whatever they please. See Dr. Briand Rothschild's "Fish, the Intent of Congress, and Jobs" and the related American Thinker piece.
- Catch allocations, the key to successful fishing under catch shares, remain extremely low because of the government's uncertainty in its science. See the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute (MFI) study report.
- The Secretary of Commerce rather rudely rejected a request from the fishermen for emergency relief of the restrictive catch allocations based on the MFI document previously linked.
The fishermen weren't alone in having a bad year. President Obama spent his 2010 Vineyard vacation under a Joe Btfsplk perpetual rain cloud, spent most of the intervening year under one form or other of Joe Btfsplk political clouds, and was driven from the Vineyard this year by a Joe Btfsplk hurricane, courtesy of Dr. Lubchenco and NOAA. The country has had a tough year as well. The reader can ponder the synergy at his leisure.
How did Captain Sherman fare in 2010? Pretty much the same as the overall industry. First, the good news, or the illusion of good news: Russ had the highest gross revenues of his 40-year career in 2010. The offsetting bad news: his net was an appreciable loss.
NOAA did their normal disingenuous PR release trumpeting the high revenues as proof of the effectiveness of catch shares while completely ignoring the increased costs. See the Gloucester Times article by Richard Gaines.
Captain Sherman recently invited me to his home in Gloucester. The first words out of his mouth: "We needed regulation in the worst way." He emphasized that point. But -- and it is a big but -- the government has gone too far and become too rigid.
- Overfishing, the condition that led to the need for regulations, has ended. No less an expert than Dr. Steve Murawski, recently the NOAA Fisheries chief scientist, has so stated in an interview given in January 2011.
- The commercial fishing industry of New England could be made to work under the catch shares system if the government wanted it to work. They could simply expand allocations within the overfishing limits imposed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). See this American Thinker essay.
But Dr. Lubchenco and President Obama do not want the industry to survive; they want it to be transformed into a commodity-based industry where shares are traded like pork-bellies. (See Nils Stolpe's "The Big Green Money Machine" and explore his extensive database on the financial inroads the eco-zealots have made into our government and specifically NOAA.) The present-day fishermen are in the way. The oppressive allocations are a tool for thinning the herd, reducing the fleet.
There are other, dirtier bureaucratic tricks being used.
In 2000, Captain Sherman made a business decision to get a newer and safer vessel. He found a vessel in New Jersey that "needed a little work." It took a year and a slug of cash, but he was back at sea in 2002. The operating paradigm imposed by the government at the time was days at sea and capacity. Not a problem -- Russell followed the rules.
A few years later, the government changed the operating paradigm to catch shares, allocations, and landings. Landings were based on the history from 1996 to 2006. Russell's new boat had no history, and thus no landings from 1996 to 2002, because it wasn't being used in New England. (NOAA would not count his landings in his older vessel.) Russell received about 40% of the allocation of other fishermen. The government changed the rules, and Russell and many others suffered. The heartless and soulless bureaucracy didn't care.
In the 1990s, the government requested that fishermen avoid overfished species such as cod and haddock. Many of the fishermen -- the more responsible ones like Russ -- complied and fished for underutilized species such as whiting, skate, and dogfish. Others said it was not an order and continued to take cod and haddock. These less responsible fishermen were rewarded by higher allocations for cod and haddock based on their landings during the 1996-2006, period while the responsible fishermen were penalized for a lack of landings. No good deed goes unpunished.
The meanest of the NOAA fisheries misdeeds came about by accident or by sloth. The record-keepers of NOAA made several mistakes in the landing records of individual fishermen. As a result, some fishermen received as little as a zero allocation for 2010. Not to worry, said the government; we will fix the errors in next year's allocations. Try running a small business when you're forced to shut down for a year.
Russell gave me insight into his operating expenses. The government's "typical" estimate is a real lowball compared to Russell's actuals. The biggest difference is the cost of leasing allocations -- not considered at all by the government, but equal to the cost of fuel in Russell's case (and his vessel burns almost 20 gallons an hour). As a result, Russell has had to cut his crew from four to three. This of course means more work for each of them, but they are not afraid of working. It also means more risk with one fewer set of eyeballs to watch the others' backs.
Illegitimi non carborundum. Russ is bound and determined not to let the bastards grind him down. But he is at the edge. Next year, FY2013, the government will no longer subsidize the required observers for catch shares. The fishermen have to pick up the cost -- about $700 a day. This goes onto overhead and comes directly out of paychecks. This may push Captain Sherman over the line.
The mistreatment of fishermen has been independent of the party in power, although Obama has exacerbated the problem by ceding NOAA to the environmentalists with the appointment of Dr. Lubchenco. Most fishermen are small businessmen and naturally conservative, though there are exceptions. Captain Sherman voted for Obama in 2008, but Russell says, in no uncertain terms, that he will vote against him in 2012.
Russell Sherman is a Harvard graduate with all the talent and drive that goes with the territory. Why has he spent forty years fishing? I asked him, and he told me that upon graduation, he wanted to be independent, on his own in someplace scenic and fun. He chose Gloucester and ended up going fishing because he needed the money. He has been fishing ever since, and not without tragedy. The vessel he was in sank off the coast of Maine in November 1978. Two crewmates were lost, two others rescued, and then Russell, at death's door, was plucked from the small rowboat he had clung to for 14 hours.
There is something in the psyche of some individuals that makes them fishermen, seemingly through no choice of their own. Russ speaks of the majesty, the grandeur of the sea, and his personality sparkles and his eyes shine. You cannot, in good conscience, ask this hardworking man to give up his life's work so that some bloated bureaucrat can make a fortune selling fishing rights.
Fishing as a way of life has endured for four centuries along the coast of New England. Turning the fisheries into a commodities-based enterprise is tantamount to the destruction of the fishing community and its culture.
Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.