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Fish on Fridays: A ‘Day of Reckoning’ for the New England Groundfishery

Fishing boats

SOURCE: AP/Jim Cole

Fishing boats are seen at the commercial fishing pier, Wednesday, February 1, 2012, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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On May 1, 2013, New England’s groundfishermen began operating under a harsh new set of catch limits that will curtail fishing effort and inflict massive economic pain on an industry that’s already struggling to remain afloat. As fishermen come to grips with their new regulations, and regulators fret about the impact that their unpopular decisions will have on one of America’s most historic industries, we should take a moment to consider the fate of a similar fishery just a few hundred miles northwest.

In 1992 the Canadian government shocked the Newfoundland fishing industry with an announcement that it was imposing a moratorium on cod fishing. The decision incensed the fishing population: 20,000 people lost their jobs overnight. John Crosbie, then-minister of fisheries and oceans, was cornered by a mob of fishermen and infamously proclaimed, “There’s no need to abuse me. I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water.” Crosbie later called the decision to shut down the fishery the hardest one he ever had to make as minister.

Newfoundland’s moratorium on cod fishing was initially intended to last just two years. But more than 20 years later, the commercial fishery is still closed. It wasn’t until July 2012 that scientists even began to see the first glimmer of hope for a recovery of the depleted cod populations that were once so robust they drew Europeans across the Atlantic centuries before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in the “New World.”

In 1991, just one year before the Newfoundland closure, New England fishermen set an annual record, landing nearly 18,000 metric tons of cod from the Gulf of Maine. For the 2012 fishing year that ended earlier this week, the total catch was approximately 2,300 metric tons—not even two-thirds of the amount the new regulations would have allowed fishermen to harvest. The trend is clear: Gulf of Maine cod populations are dangerously depleted.

There’s no concrete evidence yet that New England’s groundfishery faces the same fate as Newfoundland’s groundfishery, but there’s no reason to think it won’t. Some conservation groups have called for a shutdown of New England’s cod fishery similar to the one in Newfoundland two decades ago. To date, regulators have rejected those calls, but they were legally required to implement new restrictions for the 2013 fishing year that began on May 1. The new catch limit for the once-bountiful Gulf of Maine cod is 814 metric tons—less than 5 percent of the peak harvest level of 17,700 metric tons in 1991 and just 22 percent of last year’s quota, which was set at about 3,700 metric tons.

Back in January, at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council, John Bullard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s top official in the northeast region, told the assembled crowd that a “day of reckoning” was coming to America’s oldest fishery. New science had shown that the populations of several fish species were in far worse shape than previously thought, and under the law that meant 2013 would be the first year catch limits would have to reflect this new reality.

Still, NOAA officials have faced increasing pressure from powerful politicians, acerbic journalists, and stalwarts of the fishing industry, who have all demanded that it find a way to circumvent the law and impose less drastic catch limits on several species of fish. On this point, however, the law is clear: Catch limits cannot exceed levels set based on the “best available science.”

The law does include a provision allowing for “interim measures” to be imposed for one year that allow catch limits higher than scientists recommend in cases such as this one, where new science shows a dramatic change in the health of a fish population. NOAA and the fishery-management council took advantage of that clause in setting the catch limits for 2012. Industry members and their advocates lobbied the agency unsuccessfully, asking it to impose a second interim year for the 2013 fishing year and basing their argument on a somewhat convoluted interpretation of the law.

Despite the pain these cuts will inflict on fishing and affiliated shoreside businesses, NOAA was right to reject the desperate appeals and adhere to both the letter and intent of the law. These cuts are not arbitrary: They reflect a reality of what is happening to fish populations in the ocean. Some fishermen still claim they’re finding areas where cod are abundant, and thus they believe the science must be wrong. But research by the independent Gulf of Maine Research Institute has shown that this evidence is simply anecdotal. Cod congregate in groups so it often appears that the population is healthy, but the number of areas where these groups can be found is shrinking each year.

The science is right: Fish populations are decimated. As of April 24, six days before the end of the 2012 season, fishermen had caught just 61 percent of their annual total allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod. And these guys are the best in the business: New England fishermen have been able to find fish for centuries, and their expertise has been passed down from generation to generation. If the fish were out there, the New England groundfishermen would find them. And yet they haven’t even been able to land two-thirds of the amount they’ve been allocated.

So, if we accept that the science at least approximates reality, that means allowing fishermen another year of interim regulations that allow them to take more cod than the population can replace, which at best only serves to delay the ultimate pain of further reductions—and at worst it could cause irreparable harm to the fish stock.

The fishermen confronting John Crosbie on the pier in 1992 insisted that the collapse of the fishery wasn’t their fault. At a rally earlier this week in Boston, fishery leaders and their political supporters made the same claim: It’s not the fishermen’s fault, they said. Fishermen have stayed within their catch limits since implementation of the latest plan to rebuild groundfish stocks in 2004.

Unfortunately, the root of this problem runs deeper than that. Overfishing was rampant in the North Atlantic for decades prior to the creation of the rebuilding plan. And because of the fishery-management structure in place in this country, industry members played a key role in setting those catch limits. Until changes in the law took effect in 2010, the council was allowed to set those caps far higher than scientists recommended.

It is true that fishermen can’t be blamed for the entirety of the current state of affairs—climate change, pollution, and other environmental factors have undoubtedly also played a role—but it is disingenuous to suggest they carry no fault at all.

Still, pointing fingers and assigning blame doesn’t put anyone back to work or help fish populations rebuild. To do that, the industry will need money and creativity from policymakers and bureaucrats alike. NOAA recognized this when it declared the fishery a disaster last fall, making it eligible to receive federal funding. And as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said during this week’s rally, “A disaster is a disaster whether we’re talking about crops or we’re talking about fish. Washington rushes in to help our farmers. Washington needs to rush in to help our fishermen.”

Don’t hold your breath, Sen. Warren. Following last week’s sudden burst of legislative efficiency to resolve the sequestration-related Federal Aviation Administration furlough problem that caused widespread flight delays—on the cusp of a congressional recess when many members usually fly home to their districts—it seems Congress is only willing to provide funding for programs that make its members’ lives easier.

Guess how many of the 535 members of Congress are commercial fishermen? Zero. So, while advocates such as Sen. Warren and other members of the New England delegation continue to fight for relief dollars, NOAA must step up and make some changes of its own. The agency has already taken a first step by announcing it will pick up the tab for the cost of the observers who fishermen must bring along on a certain percentage of their trips to ensure rules are followed and fishery data is collected.

NOAA has already spent millions on the New England fishery since the council voted to implement a new management system in 2010. But with money running dry, it will need to reach deeper into its bag of tricks and find creative ways to cut through red tape, allow fishermen greater flexibility to create efficiencies with new gear types and fishing practices, and find more opportunities for them to cooperate with scientists and help bring greater clarity and accuracy to the stock assessments that will define the future of this fishery.

Today is a day of reckoning for America’s first fishery. For too long, managers—including the industry members who sit on the fishery-management council—put off doing the right thing and set catch limits that made it difficult for fish populations to rebuild. While the latest cuts will inflict substantial pain on fishermen and their communities, they represent the best chance for this fishery’s future. If we want our most historic fishery to survive its latest challenge and avoid the fate that has befallen fishermen in Newfoundland, we had all better hope it’s not already too late.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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This is part of a regular column: Fish on Fridays

For more from the same column, click here