Numbers Don’t Add Up

By Brett Tolley, NAMA’s community organizer
I recently had an interesting conversation with a Maine fisherman.
The New England groundfish fishery is becoming increasingly unaffordable to smaller-scale family fishermen. Most agree. Getting to the heart of why and what that shift implies is less agreeable.
Here’s just one concrete example of what unaffordability looks like from the captain’s seat of a Gulf of Maine small-scale fisherman.
Paul (fake name) owns and operates his own 40 ft. boat. He’s been fishing for 20 years and strongly believes in ecological stewardship. His current permit allows him to catch about ¼ of what he needs to make a year’s salary. In the new sector management system permits are tied to quota, or a percentage of the total allowable catch. The quota can be bought, sold, and traded. For Paul, in order to compensate for his small quota percentage he needs to lease from other boats.  
When Paul enters the leasing market he is competing with companies five times his size and boats that can harvest five times his capacity. Already he is at a disadvantage. But it doesn’t stop there. Larger-scale boats can also target fish when the market price is highest and thus they drive up the leasing costs.
Here’s the example: Paul relies on white hake for his catch and currently his quota is too low. If he cannot lease white hake it threatens to shut Paul down for the season. Right now the going rate to lease white hake is $.75/lb (keep in mind this is just for the rights to fish). During the summer months Paul earns anywhere from $.75-1.00/lb. at the docks for white hake. For Paul the numbers don’t add up.

Paul pays $.75/lb. just for the rights to fish and then (without factoring in gas costs, crew, ice, etc.) he earns somewhere between $.75-1.00/lb. at the docks??
How could anyone make a profit with those numbers? They don’t. Larger-scale boats are causing the leasing price to be extraordinarily high because they can target white hake during the poor-weather months (typically during the winter time) when the price may exceed $2.00/lb. and when smaller-scale boats won’t be able to access the area. Larger-scale boats drive the leasing price and in the end Paul’s out of luck.
The result: Paul and other fishermen like him lease their fishing rights to the larger-scale boats.
What’s the problem? Some folks might say, “Survival of the fittest. The boats who are the most economically efficient will outcompete the rest. They will harvest the most, in the shortest amount of time, and offer the cheapest prices to consumers. And since the fleet is operating under a strict total allowable catch, it’s all sustainable.”
The problem is that our status quo rewards those with the largest-scale boats and the deepest pockets. Paul brings values to the table that go beyond just economic efficiency yet he is not rewarded or incentivized. See our Who Fishes Matters page to learn more. In short, Paul brings higher ecological, social, and economic values to his community. If fishermen like Paul are getting squeezed out it poses long-term problems like the ones we are seeing in the land-based food system that is driven by industrialization. i.e. depleted lands, food-related disease such as diabetes, and displaced family farmers.
Affordability and access to fish are a major threat to family fishermen, the health of our oceans, and the quality of our food system. Help us in taking action and spreading the word. Supporters are invited to write a Letter-to-the-Editor to their local newspapers as part of a New England wide drive to increase awareness. You can also ‘sign’ our petition.