The New England Fishery Management Council on Wednesday took a first step toward limiting the quota that larger-scale boat owners can acquire when members met in Danvers and voted to approve what is known as a scoping document.
But limiting the amount of fishing quota that any one individual or company can acquire could spark strong protests from other fishermen who have accumulated quota and built their businesses over decades.
Describing it as a "pipe dream," New Bedford boat owner Carlos Rafael laughed when asked for his reaction to any suggestion that he might have to give up some quota if accumulation limits were enacted.
"How much are they going to give me for it?" he asked. "Or would they like me to give it for free to them for being a nice guy? Is the government going to buy it? Because the ones that need it can't buy it, and the banks won't give them any money."
According to a Northeast Fisheries Science Center report published last week, 20 percent of New England vessels accounted for 65 percent of the fishing industry's revenue in 2010. The fishing fleet is also shrinking. In New Bedford, for example, the number of active vessels declined from 91 in 2008 to 87 in 2009 to 71 in 2010, according to the report.
Whether the council envisions setting limits on future accumulation or will actually attempt to "divest" larger stakeholders of a portion of their current holdings is not clear. New Bedford's Rodney Avila, a council member, said he could not imagine how the council could take quota from those who have already acquired it.
"Maybe if somebody big like Carlos (Rafael) wanted to sell everything, they might say he couldn't sell it all to the same company," he speculated. "But I can't see how they can change the status quo."