NEW BEDFORD — Scallop fishermen and captains told fishery management staff in no uncertain terms that they do not want to change current regulations to allow permit-holders to lease their fishing allocations.
More than 160 attendees — a mix of fishermen, shoreside business owners, marine scientists, attorneys and vessel owners — filled a meeting room at the Whaling Museum on Wednesday for the first of two public meetings in New Bedford on the leasing proposal. Those who spoke in opposition drew loud applause, while those who spoke in support drew little or none.
“There was a time in this industry when a father owned a boat and he taught his son, and his son was able to rise up … buy and operate his own boat, and you know, those days are gone,” said Tyler Miranda, a New Bedford captain of two scallopers. “I think that if [leasing] does move forward and is developed, it will take even further away from the family and community dynamic that fishing is and always was — and will make it more corporate.”
New Bedford for two decades has been the nation’s highest-value fishing port, in large part due to its scallop landings.
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.
While a lobbying effort is advocating for specific ideas for leasing, the New England Fishery Management Council is taking a broader view and seeking comment on not only whether such a program is needed, but also what it should look like.
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 and the city’s Port Authority have cited concerns that leasing could lead to further consolidation.
The council in 2011 considered permit stacking and leasing to provide more flexibility, but ultimately decided against it, based on concerns about potential job losses and consolidation.
The council defines stacking as the combination of allocations from several permits into a single permit; it is not under consideration by the council. Leasing is the transfer of allocations while the person retains his or her permit.
While the council took time to differentiate between leasing and stacking before opening the floor to comments, some fishermen used the term stacking while providing comment or said it was the same thing as leasing.
An existing regulation prohibits combining permits or transferring allocations from several vessels to a single vessel, and establishes an ownership cap of no more than 5% of the total number of limited access permits.
The Scallopers Campaign, the movement behind leasing, states it supports the existing ownership cap. The campaign also advocates for limiting leasing to two allocations per vessel and maintaining the separation between each, meaning a boat could only fish under one permit at a time.
Despite this, scallop captain Miranda said he worries loopholes would allow companies to control more of the industry.
George Lapointe, a Maine-based fisheries consultant, spoke on behalf of the Scallopers Campaign during the meeting, commenting on the flexibility, safety, and economic benefits that a voluntary leasing program could afford the fishery.
After he spoke, some quietly booed, with one person telling him to go back to Maine. A New Bedford police officer was present during the meeting and said the council had requested the police detail.
Ray Starvish Jr., who owns and operates seven scallopers, also spoke in support, stating he does not see a downside to leasing, but is open to hearing from critics.
“It’s there for you if you run up against a situation where you know, maybe your boat doesn’t have enough time or has a mechanical problem to be able to finish its fishing,” he said.
Todd Bragdon, who owns two vessels and opposes leasing, proposed an alternative to address the flexibility supporters are seeking.
“If people think they need some kind of flexibility, maybe the council could come up with some kind of review board,” he said. “You get jammed up at the end of the year, in February you have a boat fire… maybe you can have a review process there. But to go and do all this… it’s the end of our fishery.”
Five Bristol County state representatives last week sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, stating leasing has the potential to “dramatically change” the future scallop industry in detrimental ways.
State Rep. Bill Straus, one of the signatories, told The Light they submitted it to Baker as each state has a voting member who serves on the council. State Reps. Antonio F.D. Cabral, Christopher Hendricks, Christopher Markey and Paul Schmid also signed the letter.
“A major policy issue is being considered by this federal panel over the next several months that could really affect what this port looks like over the next 10, 20, 30 years,” said Straus, who also spoke at the meeting.
Jeffrey Pike, a lobbyist with the Scallopers Campaign and a former fisherman, issued a response to Straus on Wednesday, stating in a letter that the leasing approach Straus described to Baker “bears little resemblance” to what the campaign has been promoting.
According to letters published by the Scallopers Campaign, nearly 50 people from Massachusetts to North Carolina, who owned or managed more than 230 permits combined, wrote to the council in 2021 in support of leasing.
Some had only a few permits, while others had more than a dozen. Supporters included 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, as of 2021.
A few fishermen told the council that they believed the leasing proposal is financially motivated by large companies, with two fishermen citing greed.
Mayor Jon Mitchell in a statement to The Light said he and the Port Authority are awaiting the results of a study they commissioned on the potential economic impacts of leasing before taking a position.
“That said, I remain concerned that the proposal may lead to a decrease in employment opportunities on the waterfront and in the take home pay of fishermen, and I have yet to hear a convincing argument why that won’t happen,” he said. “As we await the study, I encourage fishermen to let their opinions be heard at the Fisheries Council’s upcoming hearings.”
John Regan, director of policy and external affairs for the Port Authority, said the study was still in the draft phase as of Wednesday’s meeting.
The Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative, a new organization seeking to be a unifying voice for the state’s fishing industry, is currently looking into the proposal, having met with some New Bedford fishermen earlier this month to discuss leasing.
Executive Director Mark DeCristoforo said the collaborative does not have a position on leasing at this time and that its members range from small businesses to large, multinational companies.
“We’re encouraging our members to come out,” he said. “The whole point of this is to get people’s opinions and see if [leasing] is needed or warranted.”
The second and final scoping meeting in New Bedford is at the Whaling Museum on Wednesday, May 25 at 4 p.m. Upcoming meeting dates can be found on the council’s website.
In September, the council will vote on whether it will proceed with drafting an amendment to allow leasing.
The public can submit written comments through 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.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 12, 2022, to add the names of leasing supporters and a more accurate estimate of attendees.