Local scallopers have crowded a series of public meetings this spring to fight a regulatory change under consideration they say could fuel further corporate consolidation in their industry, hurting not only fishing crews and their captains, but the legions of shoreside businesses that service their boats.

The proposed change, in the earliest stages of consideration by the New England Fishery Management Council, would allow boat owners to lease their government-granted access to scallop grounds out to other vessels, potentially opening the door for large commercial fishing operations to circumvent existing ownership caps and increase their already substantial share of the scallop market.

“The bottom line is this proposal is about global control, from the switch to the fish to the dish,” said Alan Cass, a former New Bedford scalloper who began his career as a deckhand and retired as a boat owner. “The resource will be at the mercy of a consolidated effort by these corporations to control ocean-to-table and economically injure the small entities in this industry.”

For nearly 30 years, scallopers like Cass and his son, who followed him into the industry, have gone to sea under a set of regulations that limit both the amount of scallops that can be harvested each year and the share of that harvest that belongs to the industry’s biggest players.

The arrangement, though complex to navigate, has kept a large class of independent fishermen competitive in a global industry alongside corporations with larger fleets and in-house processing and distribution services.

Many of the nation’s largest scallop companies are now pressuring regulators to revise the fishery’s long-standing regulations to allow the allocations assigned to individual boats to be offered for lease on a newly created market.

Proponents say the change could help smaller scallopers too. If a boat breaks down, for instance, or is unable to fish for other reasons, a permit holder could still make money by leasing their scallop allocation to other operations.

Roy Enoksen, the president of Eastern Fisheries and a co-owner of the nation’s largest scallop fleet, said leasing would allow him to stack scallop allocations onto more efficient vessels and save on maintenance costs.

“All that I want to do is put two permits on one boat, not fish any more than those two permits did before,” Enoksen said. “Nobody’s trying to take advantage of anybody.”

But critics of leasing say such maneuvers could reduce employment for fishermen and hurt the competitiveness of smaller fleets, while simultaneously cutting out a substantial amount of business for the shoreside companies that service fishing vessels.

Critics also have concerns that boat owners could pass on the cost of acquiring leases to fishermen, taking it out of their share of a voyage’s profits, the same way food and fuel costs are deducted.

“The playing field will be tilted on day one, perhaps irrevocably so, and the transformation of the scallop fishery from a community fishery to a corporate fishery may become all but inevitable,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said in a letter to regulators this week objecting to the change.

The city’s state legislators also wrote a letter opposing leasing.

The possibility of drafting alternatives for an eventual leasing program is still in the earliest stages of consideration by the New England Fishery Management Council, the body that develops fishing regulations for federal waters in the region.

The outcome could have major implications for fishing communities across the East Coast, though its impact is likely to be felt most acutely in New Bedford, the nation’s highest-grossing fishing port, where scallop landings account for more than 80 percent of all seafood revenue.

Although the council rejected a similar proposal in 2011, it is facing renewed pressure to consider leasing from a lobbying group called the Scallopers Campaign, whose members include industry titans like Blue Harvest, Eastern Fisheries and Atlantic Capes, as well as dozens of smaller-scale scallopers from North Carolina to Massachusetts.

The council is holding a series of public meetings up and down the coast this spring to gauge broader public opinion on the issue. The latest, held Wednesday in a gallery of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, drew close to 100 participants.

Daniel Georgianna, a professor emeritus of economics at UMass Dartmouth who spoke at the meeting, said a recent analysis of leasing’s benefits commissioned by the Scallopers Campaign identified a total cost savings worth less than 3 percent of the fishery’s annual catch value.

Nearly all of the savings, Georgianna said, would come from the permanent retirement of 114 vessels, a substantial share of the roughly 930 boats currently operating in the nation’s commercial scallop fishery.

“What is the benefit from leasing?” Georgianna said. “The people who are in favor of it really, I think, need to do a better job of explaining how it helps the industry, the resource, and the marketing of the resource.”

Gabriel Skaar, a 30-year-old crew member who works on scallop boats out of New Bedford, spoke about the potential impact of those changes.

“We’re going to lose our ability to pick and choose which boats to work for, and without that leverage we lose our pay,” he said.

Jeff Pike, a lobbyist for the Scallopers Campaign, said concerns about circumventing ownership caps could be addressed with a well-crafted leasing program. 

“I would be opposed to a bunch of stuff that you all are talking about,” Pike said. “You've been disadvantaged a bit because you've been asked to comment on something that doesn't exist. The human tendency, obviously, is to say all the worst possible things.”

The New England Fishery Management Council plans to vote in September on whether to draft alternatives for a potential scallop leasing program. If the council agrees to move forward with drafting, it would hold another series of public meetings before voting on whether to implement any of the proposed leasing systems.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.