Changing Planet

Fish on Fridays: Time for New England’s Groundfishery to Hit the “Reset” Button

Gulf of Maine cod have been slow to recover from decades of overfishing, even though fishermen have adhered to strict harvest caps in recent years. (Photo: Jamie Doucette)

The following piece was originally published by the Center for American Progress.

At the end of last September, I wrote a column, enthusiastically titled “Optimism for the New England Groundfishery.” My theory was that after a history of overfishing, subsequent belt-tightening, and implementation of a new management system, the industry was on the cusp of recovery. The piece came out just days after New England’s beloved Red Sox sealed a historic September swoon, blowing a nine-game lead in just 24 days and losing the last game of the season in excruciating fashion to keep them out of last year’s playoffs. My assumption was that both the Sox and the groundfishery had nowhere to go but up.

Less than a month later, news broke that a new scientific assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, one of the fishery’s keystone species, showed it was in worse shape than scientists previously thought, and even if all fishing was halted, it would not recover by the end of its legally mandated timeline in 2014. As a result, fishermen saw their allowable catch of the fish reduced by more than 20 percent—an outcome all parties knew was just a one-year Band-Aid on what would have to be far more drastic cuts in 2013.

So much for optimism.

Similar results emerged as the cod assessment’s methodology was applied to other species in the fishery. Looking to 2013, the groundfishery now faces additional allowable catch cuts of 72 percent on Gulf of Maine cod, 70 percent on its cousin Georges Bank cod, 51 percent on yellowtail flounder, and 69 percent on American plaice (AKA sole). In the face of these numbers, it’s time to step back and reconceive of what this fishery can and should look like in the future.

As I detailed in my report “The Future of America’s First Fishery,” the New England groundfishery had a decades-old history of overfishing. In recent years, that practice has almost entirely been curtailed as legally mandated catch limits kept total harvest to sustainable levels. But populations left decimated by past overexploitation have been slow to rebuild, as the recent assessments indicate.

Some fishermen believe the 2011 assessments are too pessimistic and don’t reflect the reality on and under the water. Their arguments would be stronger if their nets were bursting with fish and they were pushing the limits of their annual quotas. But this has not been the case.

According to NOAA’s data, as of August 23, nearly one-third of the way through the fishing year, not a single major groundfish stock had exceeded 33 percent of its annual quota (though Gulf of Maine winter flounder was at 32.3 percent), and groundfish sector fishermen had only caught 16 percent of their allocated Gulf of Maine cod. The most likely explanation for this is that fishermen simply aren’t finding the fish.

Despite the evidence on the docks and in the processing houses, in an editorial this week, the fishing industry-friendly Gloucester Daily Times perpetuated a myth that has formed the foundation of much of its coverage of the groundfishery, saying, “The only way to fix the ongoing economic fisheries disaster is to address the cause of the disaster itself — and that’s [National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane] Lubchenco’s, NOAA’s and the corporately-driven Environmental Defense Fund’s job-killing catch share management system.”

The Times’s endless scapegoating of Lubchenco and NOAA is not only factually incorrect, it actively works against the best interests of the fishery. It doesn’t matter how we manage a fishery if there aren’t enough fish to fill nets.

Management systems didn’t cause these fish to disappear. Overfishing in the 1980s and early 1990s took care of that. And now environmental conditions and global climate change are making it harder for those fish to replenish themselves even as fishermen have had to dial back their effort.

We’ve seen this story before, in this same fishery, just northeast of the international boundary line in Newfoundland, where cod crashed in the 1990s and have yet to recover. It may not be too late for New England to avoid this fate, but to do so will require a major cultural shift.

Several New England governors have asked the secretary of commerce and NOAA to declare a federal fishery disaster.

If a declaration is granted—which  it should be—and Congress appropriates money for disaster relief, all stakeholders must be prepared to use that funding to make drastic changes in this fishery. Not to a regulatory system that the Times and others would like to blame, but to the root problem: there are too many boats chasing too few fish.

As painful as it will be for many fishermen whose livelihoods, culture, and generational history is inextricably tied to the groundfishery, the time has come for all fishery stakeholders to look at the big picture. Right now, this resource cannot sustain the fishing pressure being brought to bear by the fleet. Whether by design or by natural attrition, boats will have to drop out of this fishery.

To employ a blunt and overly simplistic phrase: This sucks. But contraction will occur one way or another. We can either do it in a managed, designed way, or simply let the chips fall and watch fishermen go bankrupt one by one.

After the hauntingly familiar pain of another Red Sox late-season collapse evolved once more into optimism during spring training, this season went downhill fast. Earlier this week the Sox made one of the boldest deals in baseball history sending three all-star caliber players to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for a few prospects and the freedom to get out from under nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in long-term contracts. In short, things had gone so sour that when the Dodgers dangled a big red “reset” button in front of the Red Sox, Boston’s ownership and management didn’t hesitate to push it.

If disaster funding comes to New England, fishermen, environmentalists, their congressional representatives, and fishery managers must be willing to seize the opportunity to hit their own “reset” button. They must develop and implement a plan that will result in a leaner fishery that keeps vessels of diverse sizes, gear types, and geographic distribution operating, and gives them sufficient access to the resource to keep them solvent in the long-term as stocks rebuild.

This plan must also include mechanisms by which the fishery can once more be expanded if and when populations do rebound. It must consider the implications on vessel owners, captains, and crew as well as shore-side industries. And it must improve scientific research and monitoring of the fishery so all fishery stakeholders can have a clearer picture of what their future might look like.

Baseball, of course, is a hobby for New Englanders, while fishing is often a way of life—though there are plenty of New Englanders for whom the inverse holds true. After last September’s collapse and this season’s floundering, Red Sox fans were elated when team management made the incredibly bold decision to blow up one of baseball’s most expensive rosters.

It’s folly to expect fishermen to react with the same enthusiasm when their entire financial and cultural future hangs in the balance. But this fishery is quickly running out of options.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.
  • William Burgess Leavenworth

    Want to bring back the groundfish industry? Then prohibit the big midwater trawlers and big seiners that have destroyed most of the forage fish. When herring spawned inshore, the streams were full of alewives and shad and the bays were full of menhaden, the near-shore hook fishery produced as much cod by weight within sight of land as are presumed to exist in the Gulf of Maine today. Not a guess or a fantasy, but real numbers in weight of cod bought by fish merchants of the mid to late 19th century, and weight of forage fish caught in shore net gear in those same years.

  • Sean

    I couldn’t disagree more that “Management systems didn’t cause these fish to disappear.” Management of fisheries in this country has been consistently terrible at protecting fish stocks, protecting jobs and livelihoods and is one of the primary causes of overfishing! There are less fish in the ocean today than there were when Magnusen was passed in ’76, and the numbers have continued to decline despite “managements” best (or worst) efforts.

    Additionally the comment that fishermen are not filling their quota because they are not finding fish, is simply wrong. Fishermen are very logical, they do not fish when the price is low, the fish are far away, or any number of other reasons. One more reason could be that fishermen know the value of their “quota” will increase as the fishing year goes on and impending cuts to quota will only serve to drive the value of that “holdover” quota higher in the next fishing year. Yes there are not as many fish as most fishermen would like, but you can be certain that if the price were higher they would be nailing that quota.

    Furthermore, your lack of understanding of how the current quota system actually works greatly undermines your argument that “catch shares” can save the fishery.

    While you and I share a desire to see New England groundfish populations rebuilt, your faith in a management scheme that has a 36 year track record of failure to manage either fishermen or fish populations – to borrow your analogy – is a called third strike.

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