Groundfishing is not what it used to be. Cod, hake, monkfish, haddock—all used to be mainstays for fishermen who would lobster part of the year, then round out the year with groundfishing and shrimping.
The fisheries have since collapsed, primarily due to overfishing, said Patrick Shepard, fisheries policy associate at Penobscot East. As part of conservation measures, federal fisheries policy has ceased granting new groundfishing permits and instated catch-share management.
Catch-share management means quotas are allotted based on catch history from 1996-2006. During those years, many fishermen found it more profitable to primarily lobster fish, meaning their permits have little to no quota attached to them.
While these management efforts may help to rebuild fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine, they also encourage consolidation, which Shepard says is happening rapidly. What this means is that if and when the groundfish population becomes healthy again—which could be in 10 years or more—there will be few permits available for fishermen.
Penobscot East Resource Center has launched the New England Fisheries Access Network, a website that connects permit sellers and buyers in the hopes of maintaining groundfish access for small-scale operators.
How NEFAN will work
To fish for groundfish, a fisherman needs two things: a permit (attached to a vessel, not to the fisherman like a lobster license) and quota—the ability to land the fish. While quotas can be leased or purchased from other fishermen or permit banks, permits are another story.
Permits need to be purchased only once, but a letter to the federal government confirming the permit holder wants to keep holding that permit is required yearly. If a permit holder fails to send that letter, his license is lost and is gone—since 2009, 79 permits have been un-renewed and lost in New England. There are only 1,256 groundfishing permits in all of New England, said Shepard. The permits with the highest percentages of quota sell for millions, he added.
Many fishermen who hold groundfish permits with little or no quota attached (remember, quota was attached based on fishing activity from 1996-2006) think their permits aren’t worth anything.
But Shepard said to a fisherman who wants to diversify, and have the option to buy a permit with a small quota or to lease quota in the future, that permit is important.
The NEFAN website, fisheriesaccessnet work.org, will help connect those fishermen.
“When you log on to the site, there’s a button for buyers and a button for sellers,” said Shepard. To buy or sell, the fisherman would fill out an application describing his potential plans for fishing, or describing the permit he has and any quota attached to it. “So there might be someone looking to sell a permit with some hake and haddock quota,” said Shepard. “And then there is a fisherman who is looking for a permit with those species.” The program also will offer support for the transfer process, including negotiation help if required and help navigating the federal process, which can take up to 90 days to complete.
But, continued Shepard, the program is not just a brokerage to match buyers and sellers. “New [groundfish] fishermen will get hands-on experience writing a business plan,” he said. There will be tools available to help fishermen plan for their future, including cash-flow projection tools specifically built for fishermen. These tools, currently under construction, will be tailored to each fisherman, whether he fishes for lobster for most of the year and groundfish for the rest, and so on.
Shepard said it is easy for lobstermen to convert their boats from lobstering vessels to longline or jigging operations for part of the year.
The project is partially funded through a $31,977 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fisheries Innovation Fund, with other assistance from Maine Sea Grant.
“We’re pushing to preserve the permits, and make sure existing permits are kept,” said Shepard, who said Penobscot East has identified about 88 permits that would likely be low-coast enough to be purchased by fishermen interested in getting into the groundfish industry.
For more information about the New England Fisheries Access Network, visit fisheriesaccessnetwork.org or contact Patrick Shepard at Penobscot East Resource Center at 367-2708.