WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fishermen from each corner of the country descended on the nation’s capital last week, banding together to confront what they describe as a predatory regulatory system that treats fishing rights “like stocks on Wall Street.” 

The group of more than a dozen fishermen make up a loose organization known as the Catch Share Reform Coalition. They presented a proposal to several U.S. senators, members of Congress and the head of NOAA Fisheries to rework regulations that they say have enabled investors to amass large amounts of fishing permits — cornering parts of the industry at the expense of local fishermen. 

Members of the group each fish out of different ports, using different types of gear and fishing for different species. But they said they are all united in their goal to keep fishing rights in the hands of local fishermen. 


“If you want to be a fisherman, pull on some boots, put on rain gear, and go catch some fish. If you want to be an investor, go to Wall Street,” said Alexus Kwachka, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska. “Nobody should be able to sit on a beach and extract profits from a resource they don’t even participate in.” 

“So much damage has already played out. Catch share programs, and the consolidation they enable, amount to land grabs on the water,” said Tim Barrett, a commercial fisherman out of Plymouth, and president of Northeast Fishery Sector 10.

They also asked Congress to aid in creating transparency in the ownership of fishing permits and the opaque market for leasing quota, which is completely shielded from government oversight. And they pleaded for Congress to help rein in the antitrust limits on permit ownership for species like groundfish in the Northeast or red snapper in the Gulf, both of which they said are high enough to enable monopolization. 

“Major corporations that aren’t even American are buying up all these permits,” said Lucas Raymond, 30, a fisherman from New Hampshire, speaking to a representative of Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana. “That’s what’s happening in New England.” 

The trip coalesced around a wider push to address the growing economic inequities of the fishing industry.

In Alaska, Mary Peltola, the first native elected to the state’s Congress, campaigned on overhauling federal fishing law to claw the North Pacific back from trawling corporations and ensure native Alaskans benefit from the ocean resources. 

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In Louisiana, a representative of the Attorney General, Larry Marino, openly condemned the inequities of the regulatory system at a meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council last week. He spoke of the need to reform catch share programs. 

“What do you want this fishery to look like?” He asked the Gulf’s council. “I don’t think that you think that this fishery should look like a private monopoly, where fishermen are merely sharecroppers for a privileged few.”

In July, an investigation by The New Bedford Light and ProPublica revealed how private equity firms and foreign capital have gained significant control over the market — tracing the ownership of Blue Harvest Fisheries, the single-largest permit holder in New England’s groundfish industry, to a “secretive” billionaire family in the Netherlands. 

The investigation led members of the regional regulatory council to acknowledge that the current framework “fails to prevent excessive consolidation” and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to probe competition concerns in New England’s groundfish and scallop fisheries. 

The regulatory system known as “catch shares,” introduced to New England’s groundfish management in 2010, overhauled the function of fishing permits. Instead of limits per trip, federal scientists set a “total allowable catch” each year for each fish species. Fishermen, based on the history of their catch, were granted a certain percentage of the total annual limit — in perpetuity — free to fish it, sell it or lease their allocations to the highest bidder. 

It has been compared to a cap-and-trade for fish. And the result over time is the steady consolidation of fishing permits, first by large fishing corporations and recently by investors — more interested in the asset value of a fishing permit than the labor of catching fish. 

“Anyone could have seen this coming. [Private equity] dominance over the fishing industry is an outcome of catch share policy that fishermen have warned of for decades,” said Jason Jarvis, a commercial fisherman in Rhode Island. “Enabled by lax antitrust regulations, the scourge of consolidation goes well beyond New England. It’s pushing independent, local fishermen out of livelihoods across the country.”

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The coalition, they said, is not aiming to completely overturn fisheries regulations, but to reform the system so that it benefits local port economies. Central to that goal is introducing provisions that ensure fishing rights granted in catch share programs go to fishermen who can prove “significant participation” in a given fishery — which they define as a person who derives a certain amount of their income from commercial fishing or spending a certain number of days at sea per year. 

“Privatization schemes will always favor the wealthiest players,” said Barrett. “It’s time to trade in fisheries futures, and invest in the futures of our fishing communities instead.”

Email fishing industry reporter Will Sennott at wsennott@newbedfordlight.org.

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