The Smart Money: The fish or the fisheries

Posted Tuesday, July 16, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The fish or the fisheries

by Gina Hamilton

Another fishing season, another economic controversy on the high seas. This time, it's the groundfisheries in trouble.

In part, this is trouble of their own making over the years. Foreign fishing fleets did play a role in the initial collapse of the groundfish populations — in the 1970s, large "fishery factories" operated by Japanese, Soviet, and other nations routinely plied the waters off Georges Bank. However, in 1976, the United States asserted that all fishing grounds within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. shore were protected. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has maintained that 200-mile territorial limit, excluding fishing boats from other nations. This zone runs roughly to the continental shelf; after that, the shelf drops off fairly sharply into deep ocean water. Georges Bank and the entire Gulf of Maine lie on that shelf, which is shallow enough to use groundfishing netting. 

Groundfishing was the first American industry, more than 400 years ago. However, our fleets have become far too efficient. It's one thing when sailing schooners are chasing a school of cod; it's another thing when a strong diesel engine is chasing them. It's yet another thing when the U.S. government uses subsidy programs to help fishermen buy new, highly efficient fishing boats, as it had been doing since the 1950s.

When the foreign fleets were dismissed, American fishermen moved in in vast numbers and further depleted the stocks. By the mid-1990s, stocks were incredibly low, and fishermen actually asked for regulation.

Various things were tried, from altering the size of mesh in groundfishing nets to quota limits. Groundfishers came into conflict with lobster fishermen, who objected to the groundfishermen selling lobsters accidentally caught in nets. Large swaths of the Gulf of Maine were closed to groundfishing to try to restore the nursery stock of cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder. These species are now considered "commercially extinct."

The law that keeps fishermen honest is a federal act called The Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MFCMA), or often just the Magnuson Act. The act is up for reauthorization this year in Congress.  

It comes up for reauthorization at a bad time for groundfishing. In 2008, a NOAA study suggested that the fish were rebounding after their near collapse in the mid-90s.  However, a more recent study suggests that things are no better than they were in 1994. The optimism that groundfishermen felt when the earlier report came out evaporated. They knew they weren't finding cod terribly often, but they had put that down to bad luck.

But federal regulations aren't all that fisherfolk contend with. 

In January, the New England Fishery Management Council — which establishes rules for small- and large-scale commercial fisheries in the exclusion zone off Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut cut the fishing quotas.

The allocation for Gulf of Maine cod was slashed 77 percent; for Georges Bank cod, the catch-limit cut was 61 percent (quotas for yellowtail flounder and haddock were also reduced). On top of existing federal restrictions, these new limitations represent a death blow to many small fishermen.

"When it costs more in fuel to get out there than you bring back in fish, there's no point," said haddock fisherman John Searles of Northport. Searles says he is not going out any more this summer. He is not alone. In some communities, there are more fishing boats in harbor than out of it on any given day.

No member of the House Natural Resources Committee present during the first round of hearings in March indicated they’d let the program expire. Currently, the Magnuson Act sunsets at the end of fiscal year 2013, which is Sept. 30. And everyone who testified said it should be continued, though with some changes.

One requirement that is being considered is for commercial fishermen to have a new requirement government observers on board vessels recording the size of the catch and by-catch. This is expected to cost between $900 and $1,000 per day, however, and smaller fishermen say the requirement would drive them out of the market. 

The cost of the observers' equipment is the problem as far as groundfishermen are concerned.  Fishermen say that if the observers used old-fashioned hand scales and measuring tape, the cost of the observations could be driven down.

Other issues, especially related to by-catch of lobsters, are pitting fisherman against fisherman. Groundfishers say that they should be able to sell lobster, innocently scooped up with nets of fish, in lobster pounds. Most of these crustaceans have suffered some injury, such as a lost claw, which makes them unfit for the fresh "shore dinner" market, but the meat can be used for lobster rolls and the like. A bill to allow groundfishers to supplement their income with lobster by-catch failed in the Maine Legislature this year.  Larger concerns can take their lobster by-catch to Massachusetts, but small fishermen just dump the lobsters a waste of resources for all concerned.

Last year, the acting secretary of commerce designated the New England groundfish fishery an "economic disaster." That cleared the way for emergency funds to help support the industry with financial assistance, job retraining, improved science and management. Despite the work of Maine's congressional delegation, those funds have yet to be appropriated.

Maine's groundfishing industry, at its healthiest, is worth about $100 million per year. There are thousands of jobs on boats, and even more on shore, processing the fish for market.

The loss of a large percentage of these jobs, which are mostly small businesses, is going to be a significant hit for the state. Federal funds, yet to be appropriated, could help tide the fishermen over for a year or two, but the fishery will likely need far more time to recover its former strength. 

So the question becomes, what's it to be? The fish or the short-term fisheries? And what is the best way to restore the health of the fisheries long-term so that fishermen's sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters, can ply the waters their fathers fished?

No one as yet has a good answer.  It's time to support the fisherfolk, take a deep breath, and work together to find one.

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