Success Story: Sea Change in New England

Once there was such an abundance of cod, haddock and flounder in the waters off New England that the saying goes, “you could walk across Cape Cod Bay on the backs of cod.” New England was built on fisheries, but that heyday is gone. Now there are great reductions in the numbers of fish—and fishermen. New England desperately needed a new fisheries management system to protect the livelihood of fishermen and allow these fish populations to recover.

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Fisherman Eric Hesse from Cape Cod has found new markets for his catch and brings fresh, local haddock to consumers.

The Facts

The system that had been in place for New England groundfish (cod, haddock and flounder) for over 15 years was a dismal failure. Known as “days-at-sea,” it limited the amount of time a fisherman could go to sea and the amount of fish he could bring home each day. This system led to large amounts of sellable fish being thrown overboard, often dead. But more importantly, it failed to rebuild fish stocks while leveling more and more restrictions on fishermen. This resulted in declining revenues, with fewer fishermen able to make a living.

From the inception of days-at-sea in 1994 to 2007:

• Revenues fell more than 50 percent from about $116 million to about $52 million
• Active groundfish boats fell from approximately 1,000 to 574
• Landings of many groundfish decreased by half or more–including a drop of over 60 percent of Georges Bank cod

The future of the entire fleet and fish stocks was in jeopardy.

The Challenge

With these declines, less fish meant less income for fishermen, and the nation-wide recession added to the bleak outlook. Fishing communities were frustrated: They complied with each new set of restrictions, yet the regulations did not end overfishing. They felt powerless over the demise of this 400 year-old New England industry. We wanted to do something about it.

Our Goal

The Pew Environment Group's End Overfishing in New England campaign partnered with two commercial fishing organizations to help initiate the changes needed to rebuild the fishery. One of them, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, pioneered an innovative management style that had been working for seven years. Called sector allocation, it operates on three simple premises:

1. Implement science-based catch limits to rebuild fish populations and prevent overfishing.
2. Incorporate monitoring so fishermen and regulators know exactly how much fish is being caught and fishing stops once limits have been reached.
3. Establish community-based, fishermen-run co-ops, called sectors.

Each sector receives its own share of the annual catch. Sectors provide fishermen with the flexibility to set their own fishing guidelines so they can respond to market demands and run their businesses more efficiently and profitably, resulting in more consistent income for fishing communities.eone-ss-atlantic-cod-450-mfk.jpg

Because this type of management relies on science-based annual catch limits and accountability measures as required by the nation's fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, we knew we had found a tested method for ending overfishing. We worked with policy-makers, the media and the general public to bring this management change to New England's groundfish fishery.

The Results

In June of 2009, the New England Fishery Management Council, the body that determines fishing rules and advises the National Marine Fisheries Service, made a landmark decision. The Council approved 19 fishing cooperatives along the coast and voted to manage groundfish with a hard catch limit instead of days-at-sea. The community-based, fishermen-run sector system went into effect in May 2010. This represents a very strong step forward for the future of this fishery.

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Two generations of fishermen from Maine (Justin and Glen Libby) fish in a community-run sector and use sustainable gear.

What You Can Do

In order for this program to be successful, a high percentage of at-sea monitoring will be required. Only by counting both the fish landed and discarded (because of size or a non-targeted species) will we be able to determine when fishermen have reached their allocated catch limit and get the data needed to set future catch limits. Write to Patricia Kurkul, Northeast Regional Administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to let her know that 100% at-sea monitoring should be required on all vessels fishing for groundfish.

Mail to:
Patricia Kurkul, Regional Administrator
NOAA Fisheries Service
55 Great Republic Drive
Gloucester, MA 01930