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New England Groundfish Stocks a Disaster

It’s hard to find fish that aren’t there — who is to blame?

December 28, 2012

In September 2012, at the urging of a delegation of New England legislators, the Secretary of Commerce issued a “disaster declaration” for the New England groundfish fleet, which, not surprisingly, faces additional catch restrictions due to the failure of many fish stocks to recover as quickly as originally expected.

Despite the financial pinch the country is in right now, and not withstanding the need to reduce the deficit, up to 100 million of your hard-earned tax dollars may bail out an industry that, for 40 years, has depleted a publicly owned resource that had fed most of the Western Hemisphere for half a millennium, all the while disregarding warnings from scientists, resisting needed catch reductions, and lambasting anyone who has advised precaution.

Allowable Catch Reductions

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In the fall of 2011, rumors of a new stock assessment, which indicated that Gulf of Maine cod were in far worse shape than was previously believed, began to circulate. Even if all fishing ceased, the stock would not recover by 2014, the legally mandated deadline. Similar results emerged when the assessment’s methodology was applied to other species in the groundfish complex. NOAA Fisheries’ initial reaction was to apply a Band-Aid to the gaping wound, cutting allowable catch by 20 percent in 2012. However, additional reductions of up to 72 percent on Gulf of Maine cod, 70 percent on its cousin Georges Bank cod, 51 percent on yellowtail flounder and 69 percent on American plaice, commonly known as sole, are expected in 2013. Panic has ensued.

First came the usual denials we often see with such assessments. Fishermen claimed that there were plenty of fish around, but the numbers are bearing out the sad fact that fishermen simply aren’t able to fill their current quotas. As of this past September, not one major groundfish stock had yielded a harvest that exceeded even a third of its annual quota (though Gulf of Maine winter flounder came close at 32.3 percent). Groundfish-sector fishermen had caught only 16 percent of their quota of Gulf of Maine cod. Fishermen simply aren’t finding the fish because they aren’t there.

The Blame Game

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The public debate is now awash in “it’s not our fault” arguments, perpetuated not only by fishermen and their lobbyists but also by regional and local politicians who seem more concerned about re-election than the long-term sustainability of the fishing communities they are supposed to represent. Environmental and climate factors are being blamed as the sole culprits. Certainly, the arguments correctly point out that in recent years overfishing has been almost entirely curtailed, since recent legally mandated catch limits (which many have resisted and largely criticized as unnecessary) have kept total harvests to sustainable levels. But they fail to acknowledge that populations left decimated by decades of extreme overexploitation have been slow to rebuild, as the recent assessments indicate, and that it’s entirely possible that some stocks in the complex may never recover, southern New England winter flounder being a prime example.

Current management measures certainly didn’t cause groundfish to disappear; decades of incessant greed and overfishing did. Now environmental conditions and global climate change are probably making it harder for those fish to rebound even as catch is scaled back. This is not a new story. Newfoundland cod crashed in the 1990s and, after a harvest moratorium lasting more than a decade, still hasn’t recovered. It may not be too late for New England’s groundfish to avoid such a fate, but if it is to do so, managers must address the elephant in the room: too many boats chasing too few fish. Historically, politicians have been loath to admit such unpopular truths.

Industry Handout

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The recent disaster declaration does not ensure that the New England fishing industry will receive emergency funds, but it is expected to help elected officials from the region make the case to Congress that such funding is needed. That task will still be difficult given the current climate in Congress and the expected cutbacks for just about everything. A rider allocating such funds has been attached to a Senate emergency farm bill. That bill is expected to pass, but it’s not certain whether the rider will survive the legislative process. The House passed an emergency farm bill this summer but didn’t address funds for the fishing industry. Given the differences in the two farm bills, it is impossible to predict whether any fishing industry funding approved by the Senate will survive conference committee efforts to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the legislation.

Giving a handout to the fishing industry will likely just prolong the pain that it is experiencing, without providing a permanent solution to its problems. To its credit the majority of the fishing community doesn’t want the handout. Yet current draft legislation includes a combination of funds to provide immediate economic relief (aka direct payments to the fishermen), improve fisheries science, help with the cost of observer programs, offset costs of the new sector-management system and possibly finance a fishing vessel buyout to be jointly funded by the government and those remaining in the industry. So it may not be all that bad.

Yet, as fisheries conservation advocate Charles Witek correctly points out in a recent blog, “What we really need is good baseline science to determine the number of fish that may safely be removed from healthy stocks [and] the measures that must be imposed to rebuild depleted stocks and revisit the allocations between the sectors to see whether they make sense in view of the legal mandate to manage fisheries for the greatest overall benefit to the nation.

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“Using the money in that fashion would provide real long-term benefits, and ultimately the greatest hope for the fishing industry’s survival,” Witek notes. “On the other hand, handing out $100 million in pork in what amounts to a reward for depleting northeastern fish stocks will not change the long-term status quo, and it is that status quo which poses the greatest threat to the long-term survival not only of the fish stocks, but of the industry that cannot survive towing its nets through an empty ocean.”

Pointing the Finger

However ludicrous it may be, there are those ill-informed people who blame the situation on the current catch limits themselves, even though the current quotas cannot be met. In a statement, John Donnelly, a spokesman for Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, said the senator believes the solution is “to fix the root cause of the problem — firing Administrator [Jane] Lubchenco, improving the science and the data collected, and reforming the NOAA policies that created this crisis.”

While such statements appeal to fishermen, particularly those who got the short end of the stick during the sector allocation process, they of course have little basis in fact. The truth is that the current management system is solely responsible for whatever small increase there may be in the cod population. The statement is correct, however, in that better science could have prevented the initial overly optimistic stock assessment that got us here. Regardless, it doesn’t matter how a fishery is managed if there aren’t enough fish around.

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