NEW BEDFORD — A majority of scallopers, fishing industry stakeholders and elected officials again expressed vehement opposition to a leasing proposal on Wednesday, with New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell warning “don’t open Pandora’s box.”
More than 80 people attended the meeting before a regional fishery management council, about half the turnout of the first meeting. But more supporters provided public comment during the second meeting than did during the first, including Ronald Enoksen and Roy Enoksen of Eastern Fisheries, the world’s largest scallop company according to its website.
At certain points, the supporters’ comments drew booing or interjections from those against it, prompting a representative of the New England Fishery Management Council to remind them to remain respectful.
“I got nothing against anybody and apparently they have something against me. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’m not asking for handouts,” said Tony Alvernaz, who owns five vessels and supports leasing. As he started speaking, another vessel owner asked how much private equity is invested in his vessels.
Ronald Enoksen of Eastern Fisheries prefaced his comments by stating he is very much involved in the business and puts in 12- to 15-hour days, despite working for a corporation.
“We have problems right now. Things are going good, but we don’t know how much longer,” he said. “The water temperature, the pH is changing… the recruitment is not the same as historically it has been… we’re going to lose more bottom to the wind farms,” he said. “We need more, better operational flexibility.”
Current regulations in the limited access scallop fishery allow one permit per vessel, which entitles a boat to a certain number of days at sea and access area trips to harvest scallops. A leasing program could enable a permit-holder to lease trips and days at sea from another permit-holder, or lease to themselves and fish two allocations with a single boat, for example.
Supporters say it will improve efficiency, increase flexibility and cut operational costs and carbon dioxide emissions. For example, permit-holders could lease allocations if a vessel breaks down during the season, or get rid of old vessels that are no longer seaworthy.
But scallop fishermen, the New Bedford Port Authority, Mayor Mitchell and other elected officials have cited concerns that leasing could lead to further consolidation of the industry into foreign and corporate interests, and cause job losses.
“Ultimately, the ownership of the industry will go elsewhere, will go outside of our city, will go to New York. It will go to Wall Street. It will go other places,” said Mitchell, who also chairs the Port Authority. “We’re already seeing that with the entrance of private equity in the port in the last decade or so … You’re gonna get companies that do not care about New Bedford, Massachusetts.”
“Don’t open Pandora’s Box because once you do, once you start imposing a regulatory regime in this area where it doesn’t exist already, all kinds of things are going to happen and there will be unintended consequences,” Mitchell said. “Let’s not go there.”
After speaking first, Mitchell left the meeting, which prompted one man in the audience to shout, “Hey mayor, why don’t you hang around for a little bit?”
Asked why Mitchell did not stay for the meeting, city spokesperson Mike Lawrence said the mayor had a scheduling conflict.
Critics of the review process underway for leasing also say it is taking the council’s time and resources away from focusing on larger issues affecting the scallop resource.
“We need to figure out new ways to promote better recruitment, to promote our biomass. Why are we going to spend those 50 to 60 meetings on something that we’re all… we’re just going to argue back and forth,” said Shauna Weckesser, who works with her father, Paul Weckesser, the owner of six vessels and a shoreside business.
Enoksen had previously stated the process would not happen overnight and require several meetings until it takes effect.
“There’s no consensus. Why not spend those 50 to 60 meetings over the next however many years it takes to develop an amendment to come up with a different way to promote our resource?” Shauna Weckesser said.
Heath Fulcher, a scallop captain out of North Carolina, attended the meeting in support of leasing. He told The Light that over the last few years it has been harder to find crew to support his vessels, in part due to drug overdoses and substance use problems in the industry. He believes leasing, which could allow vessel owners to catch the same allocation with fewer vessels, would help with his crew issues.
The council is taking a broader view and seeking comment on not only whether a leasing program is needed, but also what it should look like. However, a lobbying effort, the Scallopers Campaign, is advocating for specific concepts, including an ownership cap and only the temporary transfer of permit allocations.
Lobbyist Jeffrey Pike with the Scallopers Campaign responded to the mayor’s comments and concerns and said it’s difficult to analyze something people haven’t seen because there is no leasing program yet.
“You’ve been disadvantaged a bit because you’ve been asked to comment on something that doesn’t exist,” he said.
The council in its scoping document and presentations established more than 20 questions that it would like commenters to address, including what features the program should have.
Pike also said he tried to schedule a meeting with Mitchell without any success and spoke with the Port Authority instead. He said it was a “shame” and that the elimination of older vessels could leave space in the port for offshore wind activity, of which the mayor has been a key proponent.
Lawrence said Pike had not reached out in the last eight to 10 months.
As he walked away from the table and past the audience, Pike quipped “C’mon, boo,” to which some attendees booed in response.
The meeting ran two hours. State Rep. Christopher M. Markey and New Bedford City Councilor Ryan Pereira were present and spoke after Mitchell.
John Quinn, a former member of the New England Fishery Management Council, and Eric Hansen, who was tapped as a preferred candidate by Gov. Charlie Baker to fill a council seat opening this August, were also in attendance.
Watch video from the event
If Hansen is appointed to the council, he will take his oath at the beginning of the September council meeting and be eligible to cast a vote on the leasing proposal, said council spokesperson Janice Plante.
Plante noted, however, that new council members sometimes abstain on important votes if they have not been involved in the process. Currently, Hansen serves on the council’s scallop advisory panel and has been part of discussions on leasing.
Five public meetings remain (the final two will be webinars). So far, the New Bedford sessions have had the greatest number of attendees. Upcoming dates and links to the online meetings can be found on the council’s website.
The council will continue collecting comments through early July and vote in September as to whether it will proceed with drafting an amendment to allow leasing.
The council has emphasized that while it welcomes several comments from an individual, his or her comments will be consolidated and counted as one.
The public comment period closes on July 5 at 8 a.m. Comments can be sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org; by mail to Thomas Nies, New England Fishery Management Council, 50 Water Street, Mill #2, Newburyport, MA 01950; or by fax to 978-465-3116.
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.