Sunday, April 26, 2015


Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council began voting on various proposals to open previously closed areas to groundfish trawlers and other destructive gear types .  So far, news is mixed, with Cashes Ledge still protected and a new closed area in the eastern Gulf of Maine created, but restrictions removed from a large area off the Maine coast.  Other areas have also seen weakened protections.

 A proposed no-fishing research area on Stellwagen Bank was not approved.

Various conservation organizations have argued that the closed areas should remain closed.  However, the most important objection probably came from John Bullard, Regional Director of the Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office.  In a 9-page letter written to the New England Fishery Management Council earlier this month, Bullard said

“Looking at the habitat management alternatives collectively, the combination of preferred habitat management areas being recommended…results in meaningful reductions in overall habitat protection and would fail to adequately minimize the adverse effects from fishing on [Essential Fish Habitat] in the region.
“…I find it impossible to rationally understand how, in light of the Framework 53 analyses, the Committee’s recommended spawning alternative meets the objective of improving groundfish spawning protection.
“Given the Council’s conclusions in Framework 53 and the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] on the impacts to groundfish from the Committee’s preferred alternatives (both spawning and habitat management), it is difficult to see how the goal of ‘improving groundfish spawning protection, including protection of localized spawning contingents or sub-populations of stocks’ would be met with the implementation of those recommendations alone.”
As Regional Administrator, Bullard has the power to veto the Council’s action in opening various areas.  It would probably be good if he did so, given the critical state of cod stocks off New England and the importance of good habitat and successful spawns to the future of the population.

However, some folks still don’t get it.

The New England Fishery Management Council’s perennial opposition to science-based management has continued for decades, and shows no sign of abating.  As a result of such attitudes, and of fishery management measures that strive to produce the highest possible harvests each year, regardless of impacts to once-abundant fish stocks, many groundfish populations have sharply declined.  Some have collapsed, with the Gulf of Maine cod stock now at just 4% of a healthy population level.

Yet there are people calling for more of the same.

A recent editorial in South Coast Today, a New Bedford, Massachusetts-based media outlet, stated

“If one balances what has been gained (and what has been gained?  ‘Crisis’ levels for Gulf of Maine cod?) in the years spent trying to rebuild these stocks against what has been lost in the fishing community because of it, a compelling argument can be made that continuing these restrictions does more harm than  allowing fishermen back in…”
In that one statement, South Coast Today illustrates what’s wrong with New England fisheries management, and explains why cod stocks have collapsed.

There is no patience with management measures that will take time to work.  Short-term benefit—in this case, allowing fishermen into closed areas to cash in on the fish there for as long as they last—is elevated above the long-term health of the fishery.

And perhaps most of all, a refusal to admit that the New England Fishery Management Council—and by extension, a Regional Office that all too often accepted such Council’s decisions, no matter how bad they were—didn’t spend much time at all “trying to rebuild [groundfish] stocks, but rather dedicated most of its efforts to frustrating the intent of federal fisheries laws, and devising management plans that would maintain high harvest levels and eliminate any realistic chance that rebuilding would actually occur.

Instead, the Council inflicted New England fishermen with a never-ending series of half-measures that tried to balance the desires of fishermen with the needs of the fish, and ended up satisfying neither.

But what makes the South Coast Today editorial so typical of New England Fishery Management Council, and the New England fishermen that it represents, is its insistence on denying the truth.

Despite year after year of the Council adopting the most risk-prone management measures that they could get away with under the law, and despite years of fishermen killing more fish than biologists advised was wise—at least until fish grew so scarce that landing the annual catch limits for many species became an impossibility—the author of the editorial was still not embarrassed to say

“The inability of the target stocks to recover over these many years is clearly not the result of overfishing.  This is about large changes in the environment that the fish have reacted to…
“Regulations are trying to protect mere remnants or the edges of a biomass that is supplying North Atlantic groundfishermen copiously.  This management regime is putting fishermen out of work because it’s trying to protect stragglers, drawing conclusions about the whole ocean based on fish in one area…”
Once again, it’s the same old story we’ve heard from fishermen year after year, “It’s not our fault.  It’s the environment.  The fish went somewhere else.”

And yes, the ocean is warming, and the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of it.  Stocks are responding to changing conditions.  Nothing in life ever remains the same.

But the fishermen have to take some responsibility, for cod aren’t truly abundant anywhere in the western Atlantic; if one wants to argue that New England fishermen are fishing on “the edges of a biomass,” one should also be able to point out where the bulk of such biomass resides. 

To date, that hasn’t been done.  After a 20-year moratorium, the cod up in Newfoundland are still hard to find.

It is well past time for New England’s fishermen to stop denying reality.

And it is also time for their enablers in politics and the press to stop indulging their tantrums and their fantasies, and start engaging in the sort of tough love needed if New England’s fish, and its fishermen, are to survive and perhaps even thrive in decades to come.

 For fantasies may provide comfort, but they won’t put more fish in the sea.

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