12/23/2010 - Gov. Deval Patrick recently asked U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to implement an Emergency Action to increase the amount of fish, such as cod, flounder and other groundfish, that fishermen are allowed to catch. If granted, such action would ignore established science and undermine years of public input and hard work at the New England Fishery Management Council to bring long term economic stability and sustainability to New England's fisheries.
The reality off our shores is that 14 of 20 groundfish populations are either overfished or experiencing overfishing, and this decline is hurting the region's marine environment and economy. Knowing what we know, conserving the natural capital in the ocean and harvesting these fish in a sustainable fashion into the future without damaging the rest of the ocean ecosystem should be of paramount importance. The council — made up primarily of commercial fishing interests and state fishing directors — is the decision-making body for New England's fisheries, and eight months ago it implemented a new management system, which prioritized these same values.
The new fisheries management plan was spearheaded by the industry and state fisheries directors and put in place after three years of research, debate and public input. The system established 17 fishermen-run collectives, called sectors. Sectors were pioneered by local Cape Cod fishermen as voluntary, cooperative and community-based, and were designed to maintain the diversity of fishing fleets and coastal communities. A key advantage of sector management is that it allows fishing vessels to choose the time and place they fish to maximize their economic returns per vessel, rather than having a combination of management approaches that reduces catch efficiency and lowers profits, as the previous days-at-sea system did. Days-at-sea also failed from a conservation perspective since fish stocks did not rebuild.
Unfortunately, the governor has decided to put short term economic gain ahead of long term conservation, which is the equivalent of doing the same thing with our ocean resources that has been done for years and expecting different results. Given that many of New England's fish are severely depleted and there is a federal stock rebuilding program in place, now is not the time to increase the amount of fish fishermen can catch to address socioeconomic concerns. The newly implemented plan should be given time to work, and if adjustments are needed, they should be targeted and thoughtfully developed through the normal public council process. It is telling that the New England council is not seeing the same economic emergency nor is it asking for similar emergency action.
Simply increasing overall fishing limits will not create economic benefits for all segments of the fleet. Any new fish "produced" by taking significantly greater risks and increasing catch levels would inevitably proportionally enrich the fishermen in Massachusetts who are already doing very well, not the small boats that the governor's effort is purporting to help.
Furthermore, what no one seems to be recognizing is that there are still abundant fish stocks available under the current annual catch limits for all species of groundfish - enough to support the rest of the fishing year. Simply put, the 2010 fishing year is not yet done, nor are the established quotas even near to being reached.
We must give the new sector management approach more time. If it works as projected, it should improve stewardship within the sectors and allow us to move towards sustainable harvesting of public fishery resources. This would improve the status of groundfish populations and permit society to receive better socioeconomic returns in the future from these public resources. We must stay the course. The governor should reconsider his request.
David Dow is the chairman of the Sierra Club's Cape Cod & the Islands Group. He lives in East Falmouth.