Opinion

Sectors Could Be Last Chance to Save Fishery

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Management of New England's traditional cod and groundfish fishery is at a crossroads. Down one path lie continued restrictions, further cuts in revenues, more declining stocks and fewer and fewer fishermen. The other road leads to abundant fish stocks, increased revenue for fishermen and a sustainable, profitable fishery.

In his recent "Guest View" (Sept. 13), commercial fisheries consultant Jim Kendall states that "not all discarded fish should be counted as dead." While Mr. Kendall's statement may be correct, he misses the larger picture: The management system currently in place for New England groundfish is a dismal failure.

The system, known as "days at sea," limits the amount of time a fisherman can go to sea and the amount of fish fishermen can bring home each day. This system has led to large amounts of otherwise sellable fish being thrown overboard; but more importantly it has failed to rebuild fish stocks while leveling more and more restrictions, including cutting days at sea, cutting trip limits and expanding closed areas. This has resulted in declining revenues for fishermen, with less of them able to even make a living.

Things have gotten so bad that respected fishermen all over New England have sounded the warning. One need only attend the New England Fishery Management Council meetings to hear their pleas. We must focus on implementing an accountable system of annual catch limits that allow fishermen to turn their businesses back into profitable enterprises and rebuild our fish stocks.

Currently, commercial fishing organizations as diverse as the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, Gloucester's Northeast Seafood Coalition and the Midcoast (Maine) Fishermen's Association have been fighting for a simpler system called sector allocation management. It creates limits on how many fish can be caught each year, provides accountability for how many fish are actually killed and allows fishermen flexibility to make their businesses profitable. It's time to listen to what these commercial fishing industry organizations are proposing.

By any measure, days-at-sea management has been a disaster. From its inception in 1994 to 2007, groundfish revenues (in 2007 dollars) fell more than 50 percent from about $116 million to about $52 million, the number of active groundfish boats fell from approximately 1,000 in the mid-1990s to 574, and landings of many groundfish stocks decreased by half or more — including a drop of over 60 percent in landings of Georges Bank cod. These statistics demonstrate that the future of the entire fleet and fish stocks are in jeopardy.

The government's analysis for the groundfish rebuilding plan implemented in 2004 concluded that a fully rebuilt groundfish fishery would provide more than twice the current landings and nearly triple the current revenues generated by this fishery.

We can debate whether or not fish thrown back live or die. What is not debatable is the simple fact that New England's groundfish fishery is on the point of collapse. What is not debatable is that there is a dire need for a new fisheries management system.

It's time to end the downward cycle of days-at-sea, and instead restore accountability to fisheries management, rebuild fish stocks and return the fleet to profitability. That turnaround is being led by fishing organizations up and down the coast, and we support their forward-focused efforts. It's time to follow their lead and abandon failed days-at-sea management in favor of the accountable sector management program that offers promise for fishermen and the fish.

This may be the last chance fisheries managers have to bring back the cod stock and save the traditional heritage of New England's fishermen. We should not let it slip away.