Council's Change Offers Hope to Region's Fishermen

Council's Change Offers Hope to Region's Fishermen

With the support of many forward-thinking commercial fishing organizations, the industry's regional governing body, the New England Fishery Management Council, recently sent a clear signal that New England will move away from the current failed fisheries management system in favor of a structure that can rebuild fish stocks and bring profitability back to the region's cod and groundfish fleet. This change gives the future of our region's iconic fisherman something that's been in short supply: hope.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of implementing the new management system, currently controls what fishermen catch largely by regulating their effort or the number of days-at-sea they fish. Under this system, and because of declining fish populations, fishermen have seen their time at sea cut, the amount of fish they can catch slashed and their access to fishing grounds blocked. This has resulted in declining revenues for fishermen and even risk-taking. Sadly, it has also failed in its main goal of rebuilding fish stocks.

Days-at-sea management is a top down, one-size-fits-all system that is bad for fish and fishermen, creating unfortunate situations in which fishermen are faced with dumping otherwise marketable fish at sea (often dead or dying), or returning to port in violation of the limits set for their trip. And while the New England Fishery Management Council is hard at work building a program to fix the fishery in 2010, the federal government is still trying to solve the problem by cutting days-at-sea in 2009.

In contrast, groups of fishermen across the region are working on plans to ensure that future management of fisheries includes them. Under this management system, known technically as “sector allocation,” fishermen form cooperatives that receive a portion of the annual catch. These co-ops can then set up their own rules for fishing, which provide them flexibility to be economically viable. Thus sector allocation focuses on actual catch limits instead of merely restricting effort.

The beauty of such cooperatives is that they allow fishing businesses to be profitable and coastal communities to benefit from ancillary fishery businesses, while accomplishing the primary goal of rebuilding fish stocks by adhering to set catch limits. The new system makes so much sense that groups of fishermen, such as the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association and the Midcoast Fishermen's Association in Maine, are aligning to support it as the last best chance to rebuild the cod stocks that were the foundation of this region's economic success. In fact, there are already two working co-ops in Massachusetts, and proposals for 17 others have been submitted by commercial fishing groups to the council for review. It's time for our government to listen to what the fishermen are proposing.

While it's true that much discussion will need to take place to refine how quotas will be calculated and how monitoring will be put in place, a combination of at-sea and shoreside monitoring will ensure that once the limit has been reached for that sector on that species, fishing by that sector for that species will halt.

Annual catch limits will be determined based on the best available science. The most recent scientific analysis was released in September, after a team of world-class fisheries scientists from around the globe spent a year developing and reviewing all available data on the region's fish populations. This comprehensive stock assessment provides the necessary science to guide the setting of annual catch limits. Raising doubt about this science is only a disguise to cause delays and keep managing in an outdated, already failed system.

Hearing the call from the region's fishermen, the New England Fishery Management Council has taken a critical step toward implementing the formation of fishery cooperatives in 2010. It's time for the National Marine Fisheries Service to abandon the failed days-at-sea management system, rebuild the region's fish stocks and return fishing businesses to profitability. It's time to give the industry real hope. Otherwise, fishermen, and fish, will pay the price.

Peter Baker directs the Pew Environment Group's campaign to “End Overfishing in New England."