Once there was such an abundance of cod, haddock and flounder in the waters just off our shores that as the saying goes, "you could walk across Cape Cod Bay on the backs of cod." New England was built on fisheries. Those days, however, are long gone. Now, we see great reductions in the numbers of fish—and fishermen. We desperately need a new fisheries management system that will protect the livelihood of fishermen while groundfish stocks are being rebuilt.
This new system, which is under consideration in Portsmouth this week at the New England Fishery Management Council meeting, operates on three simple premises. First, it ensures that scientific catch limits don't allow overfishing and that fishing stops once the limits have been reached. Second, it incorporates monitoring so fishermen and regulators know exactly how much fish is being caught. Finally, it establishes community-based co-ops, called sectors, which receive a share of the catch limit. While respecting catch limits, the co-ops can develop guidelines that fit their own fishing methods, providing them with the flexibility to develop their business plans.
Finger-pointing throughout the years has ensured that blame for failed management, declines in fish stocks and lost jobs for fishermen was always focused somewhere else. Today, the fishing industry has no option but to make tough decisions that will allow the industry to survive in the long run and give fishermen a way to plan for their future.
The New England fisherman's problems have been long in developing. Initially, he traveled only a few miles offshore to harvest his catch of plentiful groundfish. As time progressed and the fish became scarce, he and thousands of other fishermen had to voyage farther and farther out to sea and invest in powerful technologies to find and catch fish. Thus began a downward spiral of overfishing—which occurs when too few fish are left in the water to sustain their populations.
When the government stepped in to regulate, it focused on limiting a fisherman's effort, which dictated both the number of days he could fish ("days-at-sea") and the quantity of fish that could be carried to port—not what he actually caught. These rules forced fishermen to take unacceptable risks and to throw overboard perfectly salable fish—much of it already dead. As it became harder to make a living, many fishermen gave up. Today, groundfish boats number in the hundreds, not thousands, and the remaining fishermen are walking a fine line between solvency and bankruptcy.
The proposed fisheries system represents a clear contrast to the confusion, waste and frustration that marked "days-at-sea" management. Its use of scientific catch limits, sectors and monitoring are the tools that will help circumvent a collapse in fish populations and keep fishermen in business. But time is of the essence. When it meets this week, the council should create a level playing field for all of New England's fishermen by initiating rules that are fair and equitable, regardless of whether individuals have joined co-ops under the new management structure or remain in the so-called "common pool" of days-at sea management for a transition period. The fisheries council has the scientific information it needs; it has the endorsement of the fishing industry, with 17 proposals for co-ops already submitted from local groups of fishermen, and it is currently evaluating different monitoring plans. The decision must be to step into the future. Employing the methods of the past will only ensure more failure. If it continues, we'll be walking across the backs of former New England fishermen, not fish.