February 6, 2008

Commercial fishermen are finding licenses and permits are costly


Most commercial fishermen remember a time when plenty of grit and determination, mixed with a dash of good fortune and a large measure of optimism, set the standards for entry into the profession.

Many say that having a fat wallet is now more important than temperament.   

Up until the mid-1990s, most anyone could buy, at modest costs, a commercial fishing license from the state and the permits needed to catch certain species from the federal government.

But with passage of the North Carolina Fisheries Reform Act in 1997, the state set up a new license system, essentially issuing renewable commercial fishing licenses only to persons who had sold fish in the past and capping the total number of licenses.

Since then, most new captains have purchased licenses in one of three ways.

Sometimes a license is sold as part of a package deal along with a fishing boat.  Licenses are also sold separately, with advertised prices currently running in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.  A limited number of licenses are also available to qualified applicants from the state license eligibility pool.

Policymakers also looked at whether the state should limit the number of commercial fishermen or boats participating in specific fisheries during the debate leading up to the Fisheries Reform Act. 

In management parlance, the debate centered around open access versus limited access fisheries. 

Limited access fisheries are ones in which only captains or boats with a documented history of landing a species are permitted to fish for that species. 

Although policymakers and fishermen cautioned that such limits could restrict the traditional movement of North Carolina fishermen in and out of fisheries in a diverse marine environment, the Fisheries Reform Act left the door open for limiting access in certain situations.

The state has not exercised that option, but North Carolina fishermen wanting to fish in federal waters, from three to 200 miles offshore, will find restricted opportunities there.

Most federal fisheries are limited access fisheries with moratoriums on new permits.

Limited access fisheries include scallops, monkfish, cod, haddock, snapper, grouper, shark, swordfish, summer flounder, black sea bass, king mackerel, and scup.

A fisherman might find permits available for sale through the vessel brokering firms that have stepped in as sale agents.

The cost of limited access permits is often very steep.

Athearn Marine, a brokerage in Fairhaven, Mass., advertises a sea scallop permit at $1.5 million.

John Potts Jr. with East Coast Marine Ship Brokers in Port Canaveral, Fla., said Gulf of Mexico reef fish permits with good catch histories go for at least $30,000. 

Potts said two South Atlantic snapper-grouper permits usually sell for about $20,000 – anyone wanting to enter that fishery is required by law to buy two permits and retire one.

In addition to limiting access to most fisheries, the federal government has stepped up rationalization of US fisheries with limited access privilege programs (LAPPs).

In LAPPs, the total commercial harvest quota is divided into shares that are granted to fishermen on the basis of qualifying criteria, usually landings in a certain time period.  Fishermen can fish, sell, or lease their shares.

The allocation of initial quota shares, sometimes called individual fishing quotas, is hugely controversial. Some fishermen receive large shares, and some receive smaller shares or even no shares but must buy or lease shares from the initial beneficiaries of the allocation system. 

Individual fishing quotas are used in the Mid-Atlantic surf clam and ocean quahog, the South Atlantic wreckfish, the Alaskan halibut and sablefish, the Bering Sea crab, and the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fisheries.

Like permits, quota shares are usually bought and sold through brokerage companies.

Dock Street Brokers in Seattle lists halibut shares from $16 to $30 per pound, and sablefish shares from $3 to $16 per pound.  

Bristol Bay red crab shares cost $27 per pound for 15,000 pounds, and 3,300 pounds of Bering Sea Snow Crab shares are available at $6.50 per pound.

Sarah DeVido with National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office said that shares of Gulf of Mexico red snapper have sold for $10 per pound.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is examining whether a limited access privilege program should be used in the snapper-grouper fishery. For more information, visit the council’s website at www.safmc.net.


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