Saturday, May 25, 2013
By PATRICK SHEPARD
In light of the recent disaster declaration for the New England groundfishery, fishermen and managers need to begin planning for the future of this important industry to ensure that affordable opportunities exist for young fishermen as groundfish stocks rebuild.
Let's fast-forward, for a moment, to when populations of cod and haddock are commercially abundant off Maine's coast once again.
What will this mean for local fishermen?
The shocking, short answer is that most Maine fishermen won't have the rights to be able to catch those fish.
While there's been a lot written about the high abundance and low price of lobsters this year, one thing that hasn't been discussed is that most of the fishermen in this state don't have the federal permits required to catch anything other than lobster.
Over the past 25 years, Maine has lost its fisheries diversity -- boats of different sizes, from different ports fishing with a variety of gear types for a variety of species.
The other key component of coastal fisheries is versatility -- the ability to fish for multiple species throughout the year, or from one year to the next.
Both diversity and versatility are extremely important to the health of our fisheries economy, the lifeblood of Maine's coastal communities.
That's where Penobscot East Resource Center's New Entrants Project comes in.
Penobscot East Resource Center is a nonprofit organization committed to fostering marine stewardship at the community level.
Through our projects, we aim to secure a healthy future for coastal fishing communities.
With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, we've begun a project to restore some of our lost fisheries diversity.
We do this by helping young fishermen gain the business skills and find the permits and quota that they need to build a successful small-scale, part-time groundfish business.
Through our program, fishermen will diversify their existing fishing businesses and secure access to catch fish as stocks begin to rebuild.
We work one on one with interested fishermen to develop business plans, locate affordable permits and quota, and connect fishermen with lenders.
Coastal Enterprises Inc., our project partner, is offering free business planning services to fishermen who qualify for the program.
This level of planning will allow fishermen to see the income potential of their operation through multiple fisheries.
It will also provide essential information for new entrants to present to interested lenders should the fishermen need financing to get started.
It's not easy to talk about adding new fishermen to this industry right now, when the cod populations are at an all-time low.
It takes looking ahead to the supply of healthier stocks coming into our local markets, our processors and our fishing families to make sure we don't lose our working waterfront.
Many fishermen are understandably deterred by the high cost of buying a permit.
When permits are limited and transferable, their value in dollars tends to reserve them for those with deep pockets.
However, our staff connects new entrant buyers with fishermen who want to sell less expensive, entry level permits as a more affordable way for new fishermen to enter the fishery.
These permits typically do not have a lot of fishing quota associated with them, but they provide fishermen with the option to lease quota from permit banks or the open market.
We believe that now is the best time to learn from past mistakes and look to the future.
This fishery is rapidly consolidating. The total number of available permits is decreasing.
Maine has only a small fraction of the groundfish permits and quota that existed in this state a decade ago because some permits were sold out of state when fishermen could no longer survive in the fishery.
In the last three years, 79 federal groundfish permits across New England were lost due to nonrenewal or they were voluntarily relinquished after fishing rights had eroded from these permits.
If the consolidation trend continues, a small handful of businesses in a select few ports will own the vast majority of the fishing rights for groundfish.
As stocks rebuild off our state's coastline, Maine's fishermen need to have the opportunity to fish for them.
Diversity and versatility have always been essential to survival in a fisheries economy.
Now is the time to be discussing the future of this fishery, including opportunities for young people.
To learn more about the program and to apply, visit www.fisheriesaccessnetwork.org, or call Patrick Shepard at 207-367-2708.
Patrick Shepard is a fisheries policy associate with the Penobscot East Resource Center.