Voting on a plan to reduce the number of Southeast purse seine permits could start up by the end of the month. Fishermen will be deciding on a buyback program that would remove 64 permits from the limited-entry fishery. A representative from National Marine Fisheries Service answered questions from fleet members in Southeast this week about the details of the voting, debt repayment and prices that will be paid for permits, if the fleet approves.

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About two dozen seine skippers turned out to a meeting in Petersburg. It was one of four informational sessions held this month by the federal agency’s fishing capacity reduction program team leader Michael Sturtevant. “It’s been talk talk talk for a long time and now we’re beyond talk, it is reality, one way or another, it’s decision time here in another few weeks,” Sturtevant said.

The decision is whether the fleet wants to take on debt of just over 13 million dollars to buy 64 permits and remove them from the fishery. Remaining fleet members would repay that loan with a fee of up to three percent on future landings. Each of the 379 permits will have one vote in the upcoming referendum. People who own two permits get two votes. And it’ll take a majority of the total permits, or 190 yes votes, for the buyback to be approved.

Sturtevant says the mail out voting will be open for 30 days. “It’ll start sometime the end of March. Again we’ll publish another federal register notice to announce that, when we send out the ballots too,” he said. “And I’ll try to publicize that as much, but the referendum period will go towards the end of April.”

Sturtevant said if the fleet approves the buyback, fishermen will have to start paying the three percent fee in the upcoming season. Seafood processing companies will collect the money and send it into NMFS. The fee is capped at three percent and it will be set at that amount in the first year. But the fee can be reduced if catches and prices remain strong and fishermen don’t see the need for quickly paying off the 40-year loan.

Bruce Marifern thought it made sense to pay back the loan over a longer period of time. “It would make sense that those future generations that are gonna benefit from the program they can chip in a percent down the road somewhere,” he said. “Why pay it off in the next two years on these shoulders when those that are coming behind are gonna benefit as well? Let the program term out in 25-30 years.”

Another question was about whether the permits could someday be re-issued by the state. The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission’s Bruce Twomley said the CFEC would first have to perform a study on the optimum number of permits for the fishery. And that study would have to show an optimum number higher than the status quo. He called that possible but not likely. “From what we’ve seen so far we think that’s way unlikely because the targets that come out of this program pretty much what the fishery will support now,” he said. “I mean you have, you’re retiring permits, many of which aren’t being fished. That’s a safe target.”

Of the 379 permits, only 270 made landings last year. That was an increase from the year before likely due to strong returns and some of the highest prices the fleet has seen in decades. Supporters of the buyback say boat numbers have grown, and the fleet itself has become more efficient at catching fish, since the permits were initially issued. Opponents don’t see the point in removing permits that aren’t being fished and think fewer fishermen means less of a political voice for the fleet.

Then there’s the issue of the prices the buyback program will be paying for permits. An organization called the Southeast Revitalization Association sought bids from fishermen willing to sell. The accepted bids average 205-thousand dollars. Permit values have gone up substantially since they bottomed out in 2002. The CFEC valued a Southeast seine permit at nearly 153-thousand dollars in January. That’s about eight times what that same permit was worth a decade ago.

Fisherman Andy Kittams thought the buyback price was a tough sell. “So I guess my question is you’ve got 30 guys here that have all either (been) issued a permit or had to buy a permit, some people have sold permits, and nobody in this room has ever sold one or bought one for 205 thousand bucks,” he said. “Now you asking all of us as a group to say hey let’s go and buy 60 some of these things at record prices.”

2011 saw record high value for the seine fleet, with the catch worth over 112 million dollars at the docks. If strong prices and good catches continue in future years, it could pave the way for quick repayment of the buyback debt and possibly set the stage for a second round of permit reductions.