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The Associated Press September 22, 2011, 9:25AM ET

Report: Northeast fishermen catching less, cost up

Northeast fishermen are continuing to fish and catch less, while revenues are becoming increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, according to a report released Wednesday on the first year of a radically new fishery management system.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service report also indicates that prices for groundfish jumped 17 percent in 2010.

The analysis didn't include key data -- such as vessel ownership and various costs -- and fisheries economist Andrew Kitts, the report's lead author, said it would be premature to draw broad conclusions from it. A more complete analysis is being prepared for the fall.

The first year numbers could also reflect the adjustment to a drastically new way of doing business, he said.

"I would expect some smoothing over time, just in terms of fishermen working together and learning the system and realizing what's the best way, collectively, to harvest these fish," he said. "This first year has been a real learning experience."

The new system, which began in May 2010, sees most fishermen grouped in "sectors" that share an allotted catch, which they work together to divide. If the fleet exceeds its catch limit on one species, fishing stops on all species. The previous system tried to protect fish species largely by limiting the days fishermen could spend at sea.

The aim of the new system is to have tighter controls on overfishing and more autonomy for fishermen, such as allowing them to chase certain species when the market is good.

But critics say the catch allotments were set unfairly low, and the system is so tilted toward bigger operations that it will crowd out the small boats.

The report showed that various trends that predated the switch to the new system -- such as decreasing numbers of boats, catch and fishing trips -- continued under it, including the fleet consolidation that critics feared.

The report said 20 percent of all vessels accounted for 80 percent of revenues last year. That's up from the 20 percent of vessels that accounted for 68 percent of revenues during the previous three years.

The number of boats that went groundfishing at least once fell 20 percent last year, to 450, while the number of fishing trips plummeted from about 26,000 to 14,000. New Bedford and Gloucester, the region's biggest ports, had the greatest percentage drops in active vessels, 38 and 22 percent, respectively.

And the total catch for groundfish, which include cod, haddock and flounder, was down to 81 million pounds last year -- it had never been below 102 million pounds in the previous three years

But the drop in catch was partially offset by a robust average price per pound of $1.44, compared to $1.23 the year before. So revenues fell just 2 percent, from about $85 million to $83 million.

Kitts said the strong prices could reflect higher demand, since fewer fish were being caught. But it also might show that fishermen were taking advantage of the new system to bring in certain species when the market was good, he said.

There were also indications that fishermen were increasingly looking outside the traditional groundfish fishery to get by.

Revenues for all fishing, not just groundfish, increased 15 percent, to $214 million, last year. Kitts said scallops, lobster, fluke and squid were the top alternate species that fishermen were pursuing.

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