Thursday, October 2, 2014


It looks like the New England Fishery Management Council has sort of gotten the word that cod are in trouble and that they have to do something.

With spawning stock biomass down to 3 or 4 percent of target levels, and every index of abundance coming in at all-time lows, denial is no longer an option.

So the Council’s Groundfish Oversight Committee sat down, got to work and came up with a list of remedial measures that would allow them to look like they were taking some action without actually killing too many less codfish.

They proposed closing the recreational fishery for the rest of the year, and perhaps closing some areas to fishing while opening up some others that are currently closed. 

Reductions is quota, though, weren’t on the table.

That’s what they’re going to do for the rest of this year, and Vito Giacalone of the Northeast Seafood Coalition hopes that they don’t do anything more for the 2015 fishing season.  He notes that

Giacalone clearly thinks that’s a bad thing.  

Of course, if managers don’t cut the quota and fishermen end up extirpating the Gulf of Maine stock, pretty soon folks won’t catch any cod at all, but at least some of the guys will be able to buy a few beers before that actually happens.

I’m sure that word of the codfish collapse will make the national news at some point in time, and that folks in Kentucky and Kansas and on the West Coast will read the stories and wonder just how things went wrong.

On the other hand, here in the northeast, we’ll sit around wondering why anyone believes that they story is “news” in the first place.  For as the old adage goes, “When man bites dog, that’s news.”

And the New England Council letting a fish stock collapse is hardly something unusual.

The New England Council will face the Last Judgment secure in the knowledge that they never cut quota—or even imposed one—unless they were forced by a judge or a statute, and sometimes not even then.

As a result, almost all Council groundfish plans eventually fail.

In fact, the New England Fishery Management Council has the worst management record in the nation.  As of the end of 2012, 38% of its managed stocks were overfished, and a whopping 41% were subject to overfishing.

That compares to NO overfished stocks in the neighboring Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which also had NO stocks subject to overfishing.

Of course, the Mid-Atlantic Council was an early adopter of hard quotas…

(To be fair, 33% of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s stocks were also overfished, but after that, the number drops sharply, with third place going to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s mere 14%.  But when it comes to stocks that are subject to overfishing, the New England Council is in a class of its own; the closest competitor is the Pacific Fishery Management Council at 16%, a rate far less than half of that of New England.)

The New England Council’s poor record is an embarrassment to America’s otherwise excellent management program.  Recently, Peter Baker, Northeast Director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s U.S. Oceans Program, produced a report entitled Risky Decisions, which looks at just why the New England Council’s management record is so inexcusably bad.

To what I hope is no one’s surprise, it found that one of the key reasons for so many management failures was the Council’s absolute refusal to impose hard catch quotas, and its reliance on “input controls” such as gear restrictions and limiting vessels’ days at sea.

Such measures don’t work.  As the report noted,

“Despite well-documented shortcomings and a fundamental lack of accountability in the days-at-sea system, it remained the council’s principal management tool for controlling fishing for the next 15 years.”
But the New England Council was never just a one-trick pony.  Along with avoiding hard landings quotas, Pew’s report (and years of experience) tells us that it failed to monitor discards and bycatch, generally adopted the riskiest options permitted by law (that is, those with a 50% chance of failure) and normally dragged out rebuilding periods for as long as legally possible, which increased the possibility of error and deferred the time when unsuccessful plans would have to be fixed.

Those were the nice things that Baker said in Risky Decisions, and to my way of thinking, they’re bad enough.

But it seems that one more thing was at work here:  A good percentage of the fishermen are apparently crooks.

That came out in a paper with the entitled “Rational noncompliance and the liquidation of Northeast groundfish resources,” which was written by Dennis M. King of the University of Maryland and Jon G.Sutinen of the University of Rhode Island, and appeared in the journal Marine Policy back in 2009.

King and Sutinen found that

“One-third of fishermen in the [New England groundfish] fishery believe illegal fishing is already significant enough to prevent them from ever benefitting from fish stock rebuilding programs.  From the perspective of these fishermen, the most “sustainable” strategy is to earn as much income as possible from fishing as soon as possible before the fishery collapses or is shut down.  Under these circumstances, further tightening of restrictions on legal fishing increases the likelihood that normally law-abiding fishermen will engage in illegal fishing for economically rational reasons.”
They decided that

“a typical fishing skipper in this fishery can expect to increase net earnings per trip by approximately $4,300 by not complying with fishing restrictions.”
That can lead to a lot of illegal harvest.  The paper’s authors estimated that in just a single year, 2006, illegal harvest in the New England groundfish fishery probably accounted for 5,200 metric tons of fish, worth about $13 million.

Perhaps more important, they determined that

“eliminating an annual groundfish harvest of 5,202 mt per year would result, over 5 years, in an increase in groundfish stock biomass of about 28,000-30,000 mt, or an increase of about 60,000-70,000 mt over ten years.”
Yet the New England culture, at sea and on shore, seems to tolerate bad behavior on the part of both fishermen and the Council.

Massachusetts residents are going to elect a new governor this year, and both candidates are campaigning on platforms that include opposition to federal regulations needed to rebuild groundfish stocks.

And a recent editorial in the Gloucester (MA) Daily Times attacked the updated stock assessment of Gulf of Maine cod and proposed conservation efforts. It said that

before the council, essentially an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s, moves to enact any so-called “emergency” measures, it not only owes fishermen and industry leaders some very real explanations as to why this NOAA study was conducted the way it was. It should also give fishermen or an industry group like the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition the chance to carry out their own review of the stock assessment findings and the methodology that generated them…
“On the surface, the data indeed suggests a Golf of Maine cod “emergency,” with spawning biomass levels pegged at just 3-to-4 percent of the target for a maximum sustainable yield, and with survey indices and spawning stock biomass seen at all-time lows, according to NOAA’s figures.

“But it’s frankly hard to concede this new data is credible, given the manner in which NOAA carried out the assessment. You see, at a time when state and federal lawmakers, industry advocates and even NOAA officials have sought to ensure that fishermen would have input in any such studies through cooperative research, NOAA’s science wing found a need to execute a real end-run around all of those efforts with an “unscheduled” assessment that, true to the agency’s history, allowed for no industry input at all.”

In other words, the paper doesn’t have any reason to believe that there are any real flaws in the data, but it doesn’t like the fact that an “unscheduled” assessment might restrict fishermen’s landings, and it wants to give those fishermen an opportunity to contest the data and delay conservation measures for as long as they possibly can.

Because that’s how the folks up in New England address fisheries problems.

They deny, delay and dissemble, while catching all that they can until the feds catch up or the fish are all gone.

And it pretty well answers the question posed in this essay’s title.

Will New England ever learn?

The answer, I fear, is “Hell, no!”

Though we might want to append “Not until it’s too late.”

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