Defining a Fishery Disaster

Michael Conathan explains why New England’s groundfishery may be on the brink of disaster, but not for the reasons called out by some politicians.

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Fishing vessels form a flotilla in Vineyard Haven Harbor, in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. (AP/Steven Senne)
Fishing vessels form a flotilla in Vineyard Haven Harbor, in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. (AP/Steven Senne)

Last Tuesday, two letters about the New England groundfishery, which includes 12 bottom-dwelling species such as cod, haddock, and flounders, landed on desks in Washington, D.C. One focused on the past, the other on the future. But taken together, they illuminate a disconnect among distinct portions of the fishing industry and some of the politicians who represent them. And while one requested declaration of a “fishery resource disaster,” a much larger potential disaster still looms on the horizon.

A letter from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to Secretary of Commerce John Bryson, supported by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Scott Brown (R-MA), as well as by Massachusetts Reps. Barney Frank, John Tierney, Bill Keating, and Ed Markey, cites both a loss of fishing revenue and consolidation of operations in the groundfishery that left 109 fewer vessels fishing for groundfish in 2010 than in 2009. Patrick’s letter focuses particularly on a group of small-boat fishermen operating outside the major ports of New Bedford and Gloucester, and asks for $21 million to alleviate the disaster.

Gov. Patrick blamed this situation squarely on the transition to a new “catch share”-style management system that regulators implemented in the groundfishery in 2010. This system allocates percentages of the total amount of fish that can be caught to fishermen who join collective groups known as “sectors” based on how many fish each fisherman has caught in the past. They are then permitted to trade allocation to others within or outside their sector. The fear is that such trading will result in excessive consolidation of too many fish in too few hands.

That same day, the New England congressional delegation received a second letter signed by 110 fishermen, including 84 who operate boats in Massachusetts, supporting the new catch share system. They point out that the consolidation in the fishery today is not necessarily attributable to the new system but more likely results from a mandate of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, implemented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

This provision of law required the groundfishery and all fisheries experiencing overfishing prior to 2009 to operate under strict, science-based annual catch limits beginning in 2010—the same year sector management was implemented.

According to the letter:

In 2010, our fishery faced mandated harvest reductions on several key stocks in order to meet rebuilding goals and comply with the provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. These reductions were required regardless of what management system was in place at the time.

This critical point—that it is not the system but the legal mandate to impose strict catch limits that caused consolidation in the industry—has largely been lost in the broader debate about the future of fisheries management in the region.

In fact, under the previous management system, fishermen were also allowed to lease their access to other permit holders. So the consolidation experienced in 2010 was not new but has existed for years. According to NOAA’s data, in 2010 there was actually less consolidation among vessels operating in sectors than among vessels operating as part of what is known as the “common pool” of fishermen still opting to fish under the old system.

In other words, sectors are not the sole cause of consolidation. Any new consolidation in 2010 and beyond is far more attributable to the legal requirement that regulators keep catch limits below science-based targets, set in order to rebuild overfished stocks to healthy, productive levels. If there are not enough fish available to support the number of vessels that previously existed in the fishery, there will be consolidation, regardless of what management system is in place.

The good news is that in 2011, NOAA was able to increase catch limits on 12 stocks of fish—adding more than 25,000 metric tons to the fishery’s overall total allowable catch. Still, many stocks of New England groundfish are rebuilding from their overfished condition due to rampant overharvest that occurred in the 1980s and ‘90s. Though overfishing has ended, the populations still need to attain optimum levels. This means fishermen must still pay today for the excesses of yesterday—something that doesn’t sit well with many industry members.

Yet rather than continuing a longstanding New England tradition of finger pointing and blame casting, the fishermen’s letter took a refreshing approach by laying out a framework for positive support from their representatives and their regulators, rather than more efforts to tear down those who are simply trying to make the system function within their legal requirements. It also alluded, however, to a “series of increasingly dangerous proposals that truly put the future of our businesses and fisheries at risk.”

Based on the context of the letter, one can assume that they’re referencing legislation introduced in both the House and Senate that, if passed, would require regulators to scrap any catch share system that led to the loss of 15 percent of jobs in a fishery. While fishing jobs can be influenced by management systems, the ultimate arbiter is the number of fish in the water. And no legislation can create more fish.

Of course, like good weather, good news about fish populations never seems to last in New England. Looming beyond the horizon is the ominous specter of a new scientific stock assessment of the groundfishery’s poster child: Gulf of Maine cod. Until recently, this stock had been thought to be on a strong rebuilding trajectory on schedule to meet its target on schedule by 2014.

But last month, scientists announced the preliminary results of their latest work to determine the health of the stock, and while the results are not yet final, they don’t look good. “The results are now that the stock is overfished again and the stock cannot rebuild by 2014–even if no fishing is allowed,” said Steve Cadrin, one of the scientists working on the assessment.

Industry members and politicians alike are now on pins and needles hoping the scientific peer review committee finds errors or new data that could improve the preliminary stock assessment. Under the law, the entire New England groundfishery may have to close once the catch limit for any single species is met. If this assessment stands, and the allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod becomes effectively zero, it could mean the complete shutdown of a fishery that is finally showing some signs of turning around decades of mismanagement.

And that would truly be a disaster.

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

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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