Fisheries regulators denied a controversial proposal to develop a leasing program in New England’s scallop industry this week, but backers of the plan suggested they might appeal the decision to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
In a letter submitted to the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) before its vote on Tuesday, Jeffrey Pike, previously a registered lobbyist with the Scallopers Campaign, wrote that should the council not approve a leasing or internal transfer program, “we will be left with no recourse but to appeal to the Secretary of Commerce to use her authority to develop a secretarial amendment.”
Pete Janhunen, a representative with the campaign, said Wednesday that whether they will proceed with an appeal is not decided. He said those involved with the campaign will gather next week to consider next steps, but that he could not speak to what those will be at this time.
During last week’s scallop committee meeting, Pike had said they would look for “other options” should leasing not move forward.
Supporters of leasing, some with ownership interest in larger fleets, have said leasing of fishing allocations will improve efficiency, cut operational costs, minimize emissions amid climate change, ameliorate port congestion and increase flexibility in the event a vessel fails. Opponents have said it’s a means of furthering consolidation, with crew and independent shoreside businesses likely to bear the cost.
Pike’s letter was addressed to NEFMC Executive Director Thomas Nies two days before the council ultimately failed to pass three motions — ranging from narrow to broad — that would have initiated a process to develop a leasing program in the limited access fishery.
Nies, who was attending ongoing council meetings Wednesday, provided a written statement to The Light, saying the council “thoroughly” debated the leasing issue before voting not to proceed.
“Whether the advocates pursue this issue with the Secretary of Commerce is their decision. We will, of course, provide the Secretary with information on our deliberations to help in her decision-making if requested,” he said.
Toward the end of Tuesday’s council meeting and after some council members expressed concerns with leasing, Pike asked to withdraw the word “leasing” from the discussion and just consider transfers of fishing allocations among vessels within a company.
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. Leasing could allow vessel owners to transfer allocations and fish with fewer vessels.
The final motion put forth by Michael Pentony, regional administrator for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, included “transfers” in the language. Janhunen said the campaign thought the motion was a “smart approach.”
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Compared to the other two motions, which were respectively broad and narrow, Pentony’s fell somewhere in the middle, requesting the council initiate an amendment to consider a voluntary leasing and transfer program where transfers are limited to: internal transfers within the same ownership structure (company), and/or two allocations on a vessel, and/or to address catastrophic vessel loss and/or breakdowns.
In his letter to Nies, Pike expressed wanting to move forward with “some type of leasing or internal transfer program” that would provide vessel owners with the “operational flexibility they need.”
Janhunen said the need for flexibility in the fishery is still strong, and that it remains critical to supporters as they consider next steps.
The Scallopers Campaign has gone above the council before in requesting a leasing program.
Before the council added leasing to its work priorities for 2022, the campaign petitioned the federal government to invoke its authority under the Secretary of Commerce and prepare an amendment to authorize leasing, stating the council had “failed to act after a reasonable period of time.”
The letter was addressed to a NOAA Fisheries administrator, which the campaign identified as the secretary’s designee.
Several committee members discussed this action last week, wondering if the campaign’s petition to the administrator was still active. Council staff said it was their understanding that it was withdrawn once NEFMC decided to take up the issue.
In response to a potential appeal from the campaign, Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has been a vocal critic of leasing and traveled to Gloucester to give comment, said, “The near unanimous rejection of the leasing proposal speaks volumes about the proposal’s ultimate prospects.”
State Rep. Bill Straus, who has also been very critical of leasing, said he hopes the vessel owners with the campaign will respect the outcome of the public process that unfolded over several months.
“They should work with the rest of the scallop industry on the other issues that the council needs to address for the benefit of everyone not just in this port, but along the East Coast,” he said.
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.