Sunday, May 4, 2014


I recently read an article in the Gloucester Daily Times, which lamented the fact that May 1st had arrived—marking the beginning of a new groundfishing year—without causing much of a stir on the waterfront.

The piece noted that the docks and the boats were not bustling with life, that the folks who fished and the folks who sold fish and the folks who sold supplies and services to all of them were ominously quiet, and seemed to hint at a general mood of silent despair.

The reason, we are told, are regulations that don’t let folks kill enough fish, and a catch share program that further limits the number of fish available to any one vessel.  These are man-made evils, we’re led to believe, that keep seamen away from the sea.

Nowhere in that dolorous piece does the author point out that the cod stocks are down, haddock is slipping and winter flounder are just about gone.

Those are man-made evils we seem meant to ignore, that are reality out on the sea.

Before I go any farther, I should probably explain, for those who don’t know, that there is more than one “Gloucester” in the United States, and the original over in England, but the one where the Daily Times is printed is up in Massachusetts, sited just about dead in the middle of the New England coast. 

Gloucester was one of the earliest—its residents claim the earliest—fishing port in what is now the United States, and that’s important, because when you do something for four hundred years, you can develop bad habits that are real tough to break. 

And what those folks in Gloucester have done for those years is kill fish—particularly codfish—for a living, working hard every day to kill as many fish as they can, and make as much money as they can, without anyone from the government or anywhere else standing around and telling them that killing a few less might just be a good idea.

That worked for 350 years or so, but a couple of decades after the last naval war ended, the same sort of technology that swept German U-boats from Gloucester’s neighboring sea started showing up on fishing boats, which threatened to sweep the last cod, haddock and flounder from those very same waters.

Some of those boats were Gloucester boats, and a lot of them were from places such as Poland, Japan and the Soviet Union, but the fish didn’t care where the nets that engulfed them were made; they just packed into the cod-ends and died.

So many died that the independent souls of the New England shore, who before had sought no help but God’s, turned to Congress and asked for a bill that would make the great northeastern cod banks America’s own, and push the foreigners out of our sea.

Once the fishermen got what they wanted—a bill that, some years and some amendments later would be known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—and the foreigners stopped killing the fish, the New England boys got government loans to build bigger and better-equipped boats, then stepped up to the plate and started killing those fish themselves, just like they had for the past four centuries or so.

Of course, the fish didn’t care who killed them, and kept dying all the same, and by the time the 1990s rolled around, there weren’t too many cod around to be caught.  A lot of boats spent a lot of time tied up to the docks, because they weren’t catching enough fish to cover the costs of their trips. 

Fishing got bad enough that Congress stepped in again.  In 1996, they passed a law that, for the first time, required the National Marine Fisheries Service to end overfishing, rebuild stocks and make sure that harvests did not exceed sustainable levels.

Fishermen, and fisheries managers, ignored the new law at first, but then a court decision in a case called Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley said that regional fishery councils couldn’t treat the law’s rebuilding provisions lightly.  Management plans had to rebuild stocks within the 10-year time period required by law; those which didn’t wouldn’t survive a court’s review.

The fishery management plan that was rejected in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley had been put together by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.   Once the court handed down its decision, that council changed its approach to management.  It started imposing hard quotas on its fishermen, and closed down fisheries when those quotas were reached.

It was tough on everyone for a while, particularly in the beginning when fish populations were low.  But over time, fish in the Mid-Atlantic began to rebuild.

Other regional fishery management councils saw the writing on the wall, too, and after the court decision was handed down, they started putting management plans in place that put real restrictions on harvest, and started to rebuild previously overfished stocks.  The new law was working as it should, and fish were becoming more abundant.

That was the case everywhere, except in New England. 

Up there, fishermen had no intention of being told how many fish they could catch.  And since fishermen held most of the seats on the New England Fishery Management Council, that council wasn’t about to put hard quotas in place, or shut down seasons when too many fish were brought back to the dock.

Instead, it adopted “input controls” that determined how and when a person could fish, but didn’t cap the fleet's overall landings.  And those so-called “input controls” weren’t really good at controlling how many fish came back to the dock. 
There were ways to get around the rules, and after 400 years of learning how to catch cod and other groundfish, the folks on the New England boats got to know just about all of them.  So while their “days at sea” appeared to decline, their catch stayed pretty high.

Fish stocks, however, were sliding downhill.

By the time Congress stepped in for a third time and imposed hard quotas on everyone, including the New England fleet, the huge stocks of cod that once fed a good part of the western world were whittled down to a mere remnant.  Many other groundfish had suffered the same fate, and although the New England fishermen rail against restrictive harvest caps, the fact is that the fish just weren’t there to catch any more.  

Fishermen railed at quotas for being too low, but were still unable to fill them.

NOAA Fisheries has just released a report on the status of America’s fish stocks in 2013.  The figures in that report pretty well say it all.  

In 2013, nine New England stocks were subject to overfishing (i.e., harvest was at unsustainably high levels), a net increase of one stock compared to 2012 (two species of skate were added to the list, while white hake was no longer undergoing overfishing, and was removed).  In addition, twelve stocks were still overfished (the population was less than half of that needed to produce maximum sustainable yield); that was one less than in 2012, as the health of the white hake population improved.

So even in these days of catch shares and supposedly low quotas, New England fishermen still aren't doing enough to rebuild stocks and get overfishing under control.

On the other hand, in the Mid-Atlantic, where hard quotas and other real restrictions on harvest have been in place for over a decade, no stock is subject to overfishing, and none are overfished.  

Mid-Atlantic fishermen bit the bullet, limited their kill and rebuilt all of their stocks.  They are now enjoying the fruits of their previous sacrifice.

So yes, it is quiet on the New England docks these days.  

That's because, instead of biting the bullet, the New England fishermen shot themselves in the foot.

They spent decades trying to avoid harvest caps, and created clever ways to comply with the letter, but not the spirit, of federal fisheries law.  They never made a serious effort to restrain their harvest and restore their stocks.

Now, they have left themselves with little to fish for.

Yet the fleet still wants to change federal fisheries law, so that it may profit in the short term by killing off the fish that it needs to assure its long-term survival.

Four hundred years have come and gone since the first commercially-caught cod were landed in Gloucester.  But now Gloucester's docks have gone silent, as the fleet slowly bleeds from self-inflicted wounds.

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