Opinion

Rules Could Boost Fish Stocks

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Starting May 1, most of New England's ground-fishing fleet sailed under a promising new, science-based management plan called sector allocation. It could rebuild fish populations, help fishermen run their businesses more efficiently and profitably, and bolster fishing communities. But the new system depends on collecting and using the right data, in a timely way.

Previously, the region's ground-fishing fleet — which catches cod, haddock, pollock and similar species — operated under “days at sea” rules that failed to stop overfishing. But last year, the New England Fishery Management Council, which includes commercial and recreational fishermen, industry representatives and government officials, voted to implement the sector plan.

Under the new program, fishermen voluntarily join cooperatives called sectors. Each sector receives its own share of the annual catch for each groundfish species and agrees to stop fishing once the catch limits have been reached. Respecting these rules initiates an end to overfishing, so fish populations can rebuild.

But the sectors' success depends on setting catch limits that are based on better monitoring and using the most current fisheries data. These essential tasks — obtaining an accurate tally of the catch and making scientific stock assessments immediately available for management decisions — fall to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

To help shift to sectors, NMFS and the fishing community need to create more robust monitoring programs, so managers can track how many fish are landed and discarded, and can terminate fishing once limits are reached.

Improved monitoring also would provide reliable information on the non-target species that are caught — fish and marine animals that are important in other fisheries and for the health of the ocean ecosystem. With improved data on all the catch, scientists can better advise fisheries managers on setting future limits. The enhanced monitoring program creates jobs, too, because it requires more people to work on the water.

Although most fishing will be done within the new sectors, some will still occur in the so-called common pool — fishermen who have not joined a sector and will fish under the old “days at sea” rules. If the common pool exceeds limits, however — as in the past — fish populations won't rebuild, there will be fewer fish for the sectors and the new program could fail. Thus, broad monitoring is needed for all fishermen, not just for sectors. The federal government already has invested over $10 million in monitoring for sectors to help transition the New England fishing industry, but more work is needed.

In addition, NMFS should reduce the time between when it acquires new data and when it incorporates that information to set catch limits. Timely use of current information could prove particularly important during the changeover to sectors.

For example, pollock — a troubled stock in New England — could seriously restrict the ability of fishermen to land healthier groundfish stocks during 2010. This is because different kinds of groundfish swim together and are often caught in the same nets. Thus, a fisherman in the Gulf of Maine could be allocated more than twice as many cod as pollock, but might have to forgo much of the cod if he can't avoid catching pollock. Pollock is then a “catch limiting” stock.

Managers used the most recent assessment data from 2008 to set the 2010 numbers for pollock at 3,000 tons, a 70 percent reduction. But in early June — just one month into the current fishing year, a brand new pollock assessment will be released. Since pollock is a catch-limiting stock, its allocation becomes crucial to the viability of sectors. The regional council and NMFS should adjust catch limits immediately, and not wait until 2011 as they normally would.

New England's move to a sector system could reap dividends for fishing communities and ocean ecosystems for years to come, if all involved commit to its success. At stake in the quest for better monitoring and timely science may be the future of New England's 400-year-old fisheries.