'I don't want to be a Wal-Mart fisherman': Scallopers sound off about allocation leasing

NEW BEDFORD — The New England Fisheries Management Council held a scoping meeting Wednesday at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on its proposed Scallop Fishery Management Plan adjustment.

Should it go through, the plan would allow scallopers to lease out portions of their days at sea to other boats, causing concern among small fisherfolk and portside business owners alike.

"I was born a fisherman's daughter and became a fisherman's wife," said Evelyn Sklar at the meeting. "And now I'm a fisherman's mother and a fisherman's grandmother.

"I hope I can die in peace, because this doesn't belong in the fishing family industry."

Licensing structure

The current permitting scheme came into force in 1994 as Amendment 4 to the Scallop Fishery Management Plan. It intended to control access to the fishery as well as equipment used to allow for an overfished population.

A fisherman makes repairs to the dredges of the scalloper Avenger docked in New Bedford harbor.
A fisherman makes repairs to the dredges of the scalloper Avenger docked in New Bedford harbor.

The regulations included restrictions on gear, fishing trip duration and catches. Most notably, they created limited-access zones where fishing would be monitored and restricted based on the scallop population.

These zones would open and close in rotation based on the health of Atlantic Scallop populations, estimated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Office of Science and Technology to be at  20,087 metric tons in 1994, their lowest point in the last 30 years.

The tonnage caught reached its nadir in 1998, when fishermen only brought in 5,564 metric tons of Atlantic Scallop.

Nonetheless, the limited access program appeared to have the desired effect. According to a 2020 assessment by NOAA, there are 147,073 metric tons of Atlantic Scallop stock available — still healthy but down from its 2017 high of 193,441 metric tons.

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In terms of catch, fishermen caught 27,647 metric tons, the second-highest total since 1964 (the highest was almost 29,000 metric tons in 2004).

This amounted to just over $438 million in scallops caught on directed trips in 2020.

Markey opposes allocation leasing

The permit leasing scheme now under discussion would allow scallop vessels to lease out fishing days under their licenses to other scallopers rather than go out to sea themselves.

"This practice has traditionally been advocated by large vertically integrated companies who are often owned by out-of-state stakeholders," state Rep. Christopher Markey said in a letter penned to Gov. Charlie Baker, registering his concern. "The legislators have concerns that the best interest of the New Bedford fishing fleet, which is primarily constructed of smaller family-owned businesses, is not being served by this practice."

The crew of the fishing boat Fearless puts the final touches on the new hardware they are installing aboard the New Bedford scalloper.
The crew of the fishing boat Fearless puts the final touches on the new hardware they are installing aboard the New Bedford scalloper.

Local representatives signed onto the letter include state Reps. William M. Straus, Antonio F.D. Cabral, Christopher Hendricks and Paul Schmid.

The sentiments were in line with the vast majority of the over 200 scallopers present at the Whaling Museum on Wednesday.

"I am opposed to it," said Paul Weckesser, the owner of six New Bedford-based scallop vessels. "My three reasons are crew, community, and resources.

"If I can stay at home and watch cartoons with my kids, you can bet I am going to do it," he continued, arguing that the drop in trips would harm crew pay rates, making them pay for the lease in effect.

He also referred to a previous groundfishing (including flounder, cod and haddock) licensing scheme that allowed fishing boats to organize into self-selecting sectors with an allocated total tonnage.

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The argument for its implementation and through a subsequent court battle, was it created greater flexibility in fishing and allowed for a more efficient system with reduced fleet size and room for species repopulation.

The ensuing consolidation of the groundfish fleet, following a First Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing the reorganization, resulted in a hit to local fishermen.

"When consolidation happened [in the groundfish fleet], the community dried up around it," Wexler said.

"As consolidation happened with draggers, they were forced out of business," said Justin Mello, captain of the Temptress. "I can see the same thing happening.

"The people who are in favor of leasing ... They are the big companies who are sea-to-table [merchants] and trying to cut out as many of the middlemen as they can," he concluded to loud applause.

Scallopers Campaign in favor of leasing

Though significantly outnumbered, several of those in favor of allocation leasing also presented their case, which largely revolved around free-market-based arguments.

"We believe that we can improve flexibility," said George LaPointe, a Maine resident who said he represented the Scallopers Campaign, an organization that favors permit leasing.

He argued that the program, as they would like to see it implemented, would be voluntary and that participating vessels would commit to "not harm" non-participating scallop vessels.

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One man loudly quipped, "Go back to Maine!" as LaPointe left the microphone.

The Scallopers Campaign has a Washington, D.C., address listed on its website.

Jack Morris owns five scallop vessels and is listed as the director of vessel operations at New England Marine.

"To me, we need some kind of flexibility," the Mattapoisett resident said. "To have the flexibility to get some of these older boats out of the fishery.

"I don't see it affecting the [scallop] resources because there are a limited number of licenses," he continued. "As far as the environment goes, I don't see anything happening there either. ... There's a lot of boat owners who want the flexibility."

Yet Tyler Miranda, another boat captain, countered by arguing that older boats also serve a purpose in the local fishing economy and generate business for some shoreside businesses.

"[Arguments about removing older boats] don't have anything to do with sustainability," he said. "Those broken-down boats provide jobs to welders and mechanics."

Michael Amarante, owner of Shoreside Marine Electrical Services Inc. in Fairhaven, seconded that argument.

"I've seen this show before," he said. "When I opened this business 22 years ago, I [serviced] 17 groundfish boats ... I now have three.

"[Fishing] is not a corporate business," he continued. "This is a boots-on-the-ground business."

According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State's website, the business was incorporated on March 10, 2003.

The arguments of the majority of those present were summed up by Miranda.

"I don't want to be a Wal-Mart fisherman," he said. "I think the fisherman's voice should be heard."

Scheduled meetings

The meeting at the Whaling Museum was the second of seven in-person scoping meetings scheduled by the NEFMC and the first of two scheduled at the museum.

There will also be two online scoping meetings.

The next meeting at the Whaling Museum is scheduled for May 25 at 4 p.m.

The Council said it expects to make a decision on the permit scheme in September.

For more information and to submit written comments, visit the NEFMC website.

Correction: A previous version of this story misused the term 'permit.' The Standard-Times apologizes for the error.

Contact Kevin G. Andrade at kandrade@s-t.com and follow him on Twitter: @KevinGAndrade. Support local journalism and subscribe to the Standard-Times today!

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: New Bedford scallop industry talks about permit leasing proposal