February 26, 2010

Permit bank to help rural fishing fleet

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

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Staff Photo by Doug Jones, Wednesday, February 1, 2006: George Lapointe and Jim Odlin watch the screen during a presentation by the New England Fishery Management Council, at Portland's Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Staff Writer

Federal and state agencies are setting up a commercial fishing permit bank to support small-scale fishermen in rural ports along the Maine coast.

The bank would buy and hold groundfish permits, which entitle owners to a certain number of fishing days or pounds of haddock, flounder and other species. It would then divide up the fishing rights and lease them to eligible fishermen to help them stay in business until fish populations recover.

While seen as a way to protect the fishing heritage in smaller coastal communities, the announcement angered some who said the program excludes Portland-based boats that catch most of the fish and are leaving the state to stay in business.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and Maine Department of Marine Resources announced the effort Thursday after agreeing to the general framework.

State officials will operate the bank. The fisheries service is providing $1 million to start and plans to ask Congress for more money.

The government permit bank is intended to serve as a pilot program that could be copied in other parts of the country. It is starting in Maine at least in part because the state has lost such a large share of its groundfish fleet as fish populations dwindled and conservation rules tightened.

Maine's fleet has shrunk from 350 boats to 70 or fewer in the past 20 years, with many boats going out of business and others moving to Massachusetts to be closer to the fish and take advantage of other financial advantages. The state's fleet and its catches have declined faster than in the rest of New England.

Many fear that the fleet's consolidation will speed up this spring after new management rules take effect allowing fishermen to buy and sell shares of the annual catch.

''There's been concerns raised (with) catch-share programs, that there's a need to provide opportunities for small-boat owners and operators and to preserve small fishing communities,'' said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for the fisheries service.

Some in the fishing industry around Portland, by far Maine's largest groundfish port, were angry that the city's larger offshore boats won't qualify for help.

''The folks who are most dependent on groundfish have already remortgaged their homes and their businesses in order to buy permits to stay in business. Now we're going to start competing against our own tax dollars when we go to buy permits,'' said Maggie Raymond of South Berwick, who co-owns two fishing boats that now operate out of Boston.

Raymond said the bank could have helped keep the boats in Portland, or draw some back, if it didn't disqualify the city's fleet. ''It's unfortunate that they chose to target this money to one specific group only,'' she said.

The focus on smaller boats and ports was a goal set by the federal agency, said George Lapointe, the state's marine resources commissioner. But previous funding has helped the city's fishing fleet and the Portland Fish Exchange, he said.

An advocate for rural fishing communities said the bank may help small fishing ports, especially in eastern Maine, that have lost their entire fishing fleets.

''Two years ago, there were 70 boats landing in all of Maine and there was one boat landing in this half of the state (east of Penobscot Bay). And today there's none,'' said Aaron Dority of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington. The nonprofit group last year helped set up one of two private permit banks that are trying to preserve fishing access along the Maine coast.

Maine's rural harbors generally had fleets of smaller boats that fished inshore and were the first to stop catching groundfish, he said.

''As the fish disappeared, in-shore fishermen no longer had the opportunity to catch groundfish,'' Dority said. As a result, they are not eligible to receive catch shares under the new rules. Permit banks will allow those communities to get back into the business as fish populations recover, according to Dority.

''If the current trend continues, there won't be fishermen in the state anymore,'' he said.

The Department of Marine Resources has yet to work out details of the program, including when the bank will open for business.

''Permit banking is new stuff for governments,'' said Lapointe. ''It'll take a while still.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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