NEW BEDFORD — Dozens of permit-holders and vessel owners, some of whom manage large-scale commercial fishing operations, have backed amending regulations in New England’s scallop fishery to allow leasing — a proposal that concerns the New Bedford Port Authority, smaller fishing fleets and some shoreside businesses.
Current regulations in the limited access scallop fishery allow one permit per vessel, which entitles a vessel to a certain number of days at sea, as well as a given number of access area fishing trips. A leasing program could enable a permit-holder (and his or her vessel) to lease and fish additional days or trips from another permit.
Supporters of leasing say it will improve efficiency and cut operational costs in the scallop fishery, which brings hundreds of millions of dollars in landings to New Bedford annually. For example, permit-holders could retire old vessels and save on repair costs without losing allocations, or lease in the event a vessel breaks down.
But the New Bedford Port Authority, along with some of the city’s shoreside business and scallop fishermen, according to their attorney, cite concerns that leasing could lead to further consolidation of the fishery to the detriment of smaller fleets and businesses.
Though the Scallopers Campaign, which has recently led the effort behind leasing, has promulgated certain program ideas, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), would start with a blank slate and develop its own leasing program if it votes to proceed in September.
In the coming months, through public comment and listening sessions, the council will determine what the program should look like and whether it is needed.
History with the council
In 2019, a group called the East Coast Scallop Harvesters Association requested the NEFMC undertake a leasing pilot program in the fishery.
Shortly after, the Scallopers Campaign was established at the request of some of the association members, according to Pete Janhunen, media representative for the campaign. He said by email that the campaign is an “informal vehicle for the [limited access] sector to share its views on flexibility challenges.”
The Scallopers Campaign sent letters to the council requesting it discuss and develop an amendment for leasing. By January of 2021, after the council had not added leasing to its priority list, the campaign petitioned the federal government to invoke its authority under the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and authorize leasing, stating the council had “failed to act.”
By December, NEFMC placed leasing on its priority list for 2022, starting a public comment and review process that is set to culminate this fall with a decision on whether the council will begin drafting an amendment that may allow leasing. If an amendment is created, it would need to be approved by a council vote.
During a recent Harbor Development Commission meeting, Mayor Jon Mitchell said that “superficially,” there would be some benefit to leasing as reducing the number of vessels would reduce congestion in the port. However, he and members of the commission said it could come at a cost to some businesses and fishermen.
“After listening to multiple port stakeholders, it is clear to the New Bedford Port Authority that permit leasing does indeed introduce the potential to negatively impact not only the scallop fishery but a number of shoreside businesses as well,” wrote Justin Poulsen, executive director of the Port Authority, in a letter to the council.
“To allow for the consolidation of limited access permits into the hands of a few entities carries a significant risk that can only be fully understood through comprehensive research and analysis,” he said.
Poulsen said the Port Authority intends to commission an economic study to measure the potential impacts on New Bedford, but has not yet contracted someone to do it.
According to letters published by the campaign, nearly 50 people from Massachusetts to North Carolina, who owned or managed more than 230 limited access scallop permits combined as of 2021, wrote to the council in support of a leasing program.
This includes several New Bedford-area people and businesses: Charlie Quinn of Quinn Fisheries, who listed managing 12 limited access permits; Eugene Bergson of Blue Harvest Fisheries, 15 permits; Frank O’Hara Jr. of O’Hara Corp. (which co-owns Eastern Fisheries), 11 permits; John Lees, five permits; Lars Vingerud of Fleet Fisheries, three permits; and Ronald Enoksen of Nordic Fisheries, 17 permits.
“The Atlantic sea scallop fishery is in desperate need of increased operational flexibility,” wrote Quinn in a letter to NEFMC. “A successful voluntary leasing program will provide the fleet with much needed options for operational flexibility and generate important safety and economic benefits.”
Many of the letters adopted the same points verbatim, and requested scoping sessions to create a public forum for the council and industry to discuss leasing.
Jeffrey Pike, a lobbyist, former fisherman and spokesperson for the Scallopers Campaign, said in a letter to the council that the current policy of “one boat-one permit-one allocation” prevents permit holders from “efficiently operating their vessels, eliminating operational redundancies, or reducing overcapacity.”
“I can tell you a number of stories where vessels that had problems, they couldn’t get it replaced fast enough, and owners lost trips,” Pike said in an interview with The Light. “It’s really about being flexible and having the flexibility operationally to maximize the use of your allocation.”
Pike said the campaign would like the program to limit permit holders to only lease with vessels of similar or smaller size, so as to not create an advantage fishing with a larger vessel. People could lease to themselves, or to other permit-holders.
“We’re trying to keep fishing and harvest behavior the same,” Pike said. “We are very serious about the concept of conservation neutrality. What we’re against is owners using leasing as a way to increase their percent or their harvest.”
The campaign is proposing a limit of two allocations per vessel and for leasing to be structured such that people or companies cannot use it as a way to exceed the fishery’s ownership cap, Pike said.
NEFMC committees met in January and February to discuss leasing, with some members expressing support or opposition. Eric Hansen of New Bedford, who owns scalloping vessels and sits on the council’s Scallop Advisory Panel, told the panel that the campaign’s proposal was “noble” and had “a lot of good things,” but could have “unforeseen impacts.”
New Bedford attorney John Markey Jr. in a letter to the council stated his office is representing “a number of independent owners” of commercial scallopers and “related shore side businesses” that rely on the fishery.
He said a leasing program may not be beneficial to smaller, independent “non-vertically integrated” scallop boat owners and the shoreside businesses that support them.
One concern with consolidation is that some fleets will grow and begin using in-house services for repairs, maintenance, fish processing or bookkeeping, instead of local businesses.
“… the issue of leasing which is being lobbied for by a vocal group of larger fleet owners seeks to promote their business plans and to further bolster their well-positioned businesses,” Markey wrote.
Some of the leasing supporters manage one to two limited access scallop permits, while others manage more than a dozen, according to the support letters.
When asked, Markey did not say how many people he is representing and who they are, just that they are boat owners, shoreside processors and businesses that supply the industry with goods and services.
Blair Bailey, general counsel for the New Bedford Port Authority, said during the public commission meeting that there was “trepidation” among some business owners to speak publicly against the leasing proposal as some of their customers support it.
What happens next?
NEFMC in January began the scoping process to assess two areas: the need for a leasing program, and what elements such a program should have. The council plans to hold listening sessions across multiple cities, including New Bedford, in May and June. The dates have not yet been set.
Though the scoping document has yet to be finalized, the council is accepting public comment on leasing from now through early July.
During a NEFMC meeting this month, Tyler Miranda, a scalloping captain out of New Bedford, expressed concern about how the council is notifying fishermen about this scoping process.
“Personally, I’m finding that a lot of the fishermen and the waterfront workers don’t even realize that this process is underway and going on and that’s just kind of concerning considering … it greatly affects us in the long term as fishermen,” Miranda said.
In response, Jonathon Peros, a NEFMC analyst for the scallop fishery, said the council is working on a “robust outreach process” to ensure word gets out to the community.
Pike said he is “extremely grateful” the council has started this process, and that the campaign wants a robust scoping process during which all voices can be heard.
For more information on the scoping process for leasing, visit nefmc.org. To submit public comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org, fax 978-465-3116, or mail a letter to NEFMC Executive Director Thomas Nies at 50 Water St., Mill #2, Newburyport, MA, 01950. Comments should be labeled “scallop leasing scoping comments.”
Email Anastasia Lennon at email@example.com.
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