Optimism for New England’s Groundfishery

More emotionally charged rhetoric won’t pull New England’s storied fishing industry back from the brink, writes Michael Conathan. It will take compromise on all sides.

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The trawler Black Beauty leaves the Portland Fish Exchange, in Portland, Maine. Stakeholders in New England's fisheries need to find common ground on managing them. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
The trawler Black Beauty leaves the Portland Fish Exchange, in Portland, Maine. Stakeholders in New England's fisheries need to find common ground on managing them. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

New Englanders are reeling this week in the wake of the latest epic collapse of our beloved Boston Red Sox. The last time we took a gut punch like that at the close of a baseball season was when a dribbling ground ball hopped over first baseman Bill Buckner’s glove in Game Six of the 1986 World Series.

As the New York Mets went on to the World Series title that year, the New England groundfishery was in the first year of a new set of restrictions known as the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan. Today, fishermen on docks from Maine to Rhode Island have come to hate that plan even more than the New York Yankees.

New England fishermen frequently express this animosity using that most quintessentially American medium: the bumper sticker. The message that decorates many a pickup in Gloucester, New Bedford, and other fishing towns reads: “National Marine Fisheries Service: Destroying Fishermen and Their Communities Since 1976.”

The message couldn’t be clearer. New England fishermen are not fond of their regulators.

In fact, the relationships among most groups of stakeholders in the region—fishermen, regulators, politicians, conservation groups, and scientists—have been strained for decades. It’s a circular problem. Politicians pass laws that include increasingly strict requirements to rebuild overfished species. Regulators, including both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fishery Management Council, are then required to meet those targets. As allowable catch levels decline, fishermen howl that their livelihoods are being threatened, rail against environmental organizations for convincing politicians to pass the laws, blame the agency for the cutbacks, and induce their politicians to hold the agency accountable.

The latest act in this drama will play out October 3 when Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) convenes a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Other Bay State lawmakers will join Sen. Kerry and Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), in questioning Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NMFS’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other fisheries stakeholders about the future of the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, which is currently in the second year of a controversial new system known as sector management, or “sectors.”

In some ways, the implementation of sectors drove the wedge deeper between the agency and the industry, heightening the rhetoric in local news outlets, and adding gasoline to an already roaring fire of discontent. But a closer examination of the situation indicates that despite a history of distrust and vitriol, industry members and their representatives in Congress should not be so quick to bring the hammer down on NMFS.

In fact, over the past several years, NMFS has taken many significant steps to pave the way for the new sector management system. Since 2009, the agency has:

  • Spent more than $47 million on programs to ease the transition, including paying for monitors and observers in the fishery, supporting development of sector management plans, science and stock assessments, and research on new gear types
  • Supported the successful work of the New England congressional delegation, led by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), to enact legislation clarifying a technicality that gave a competitive advantage to Canadian fishermen in a shared area of Georges Bank, historically among the richest fishing grounds in the Gulf of Maine
  • Increased total allowable catch levels whenever the science permitted, including boosting the harvest limit for pollock, a critical component of the fishery
  • Shelved a proposal to implement a new research area closed to fishing within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary when data showed the action could cost up to 123 fishing jobs

Sectors may not be at the top of every fisherman’s wish list for how the fishery should be managed. But through all the complaints that have filtered down—many of which are legitimate—no one has proposed a viable alternative structure. Meanwhile, it’s the Fishery Management Council—a body comprised of state agency representatives, industry members, and other fishery stakeholders—not the agency, that’s tasked by law with actually creating the regulations that govern a fishery, which are then sent to the agency for approval or disapproval.

So to the extent that certain aspects of the management plan have not been addressed to the satisfaction of industry members, their concerns may be better directed to the council than to the agency. Further, the council has had some recent success bringing a diverse group of stakeholders to the table and creating viable solutions.

Last week, at the quarterly council meeting, attendees heard a prime example of this. A representative of the Sustainable Fisheries Association stood and gave comments thanking the council and the agency for their efforts to change regulations in the skate fishery. At the council’s request, the agency carried out a new stock assessment, allowing harvest to increase 56 percent for 2012 and 2013. The council and the industry worked together to decrease the amount of fish fishermen could catch per day, thus ensuring the season would be extended. As a result, these changes have contributed to a price increase of 250 percent from 2009 to 2010.

To paraphrase the A-Team’s fearless leader, John “Hannibal” Smith, “I love it when a fishery management plan comes together.”

We will have another opportunity to change the tone of the groundfish dialogue in Boston on Monday morning. Yet as long as we deal in stereotypes rather than the reality that every story has multiple sides, we’re not going to make any progress. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) may “reject the word” compromise, but to put things in terms even he can support, the time has come for the various components of the New England groundfishery to lay down their slings and arrows and start looking for “common ground.”

Fishermen know that if they catch too many fish, they’ll put themselves out of business. So they must be willing to accept sound fisheries science and create their business plans accordingly.

Environmentalists want to see industry thrive today and for future generations. So they must acknowledge that to benefit from a fishery tomorrow, we have to maintain it now.

The agency is bound by laws over which it has no control. But it must also be creative about its ability to find innovative ways to help keep fishermen on the water and be more proactive about explaining its mandates and perspective when such solutions aren’t possible.

Politicians have to seek a balance since they represent a wide array of constituents, and they should ensure the agencies under their purview are carrying out the letter and intent of the laws on the books.

I am not a hopeless optimist. I am as skeptical and jaded and resigned to attrition as anyone who has worked in Washington, D.C. Still, I believe these things are possible.

I see hope in the New England groundfishery. And I still have faith in the Red Sox.

Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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