Thursday, July 9, 2015


I grew up in New England, and even if my home was out on the fringes, down on the southeastern edge of the region where the old values were watered down a little too much by the corrupting influences of urban New York, I understand how New England folks think.

One of my oldest and most valued friends had roots deep in the region’s granite-ribbed soil; his family name took up plenty of space on the maps of our childhood home, which was only appropriate since they were a part of the town since it was founded in 1640.  They took pride in their Yankee roots and Yankee outlook, and a lot of that outlook rubbed off on me.

Later on, four years of life in the heart of Massachusetts, and untold hours fishing, wandering the docks and drinking beer in dockside bars on the Rhode Island coast just served to make New England more a part of who I am.

It’s a special place.  Skim off the professors and techies from Worcester, New Haven and Boston, and winnow the New Yorkers who’ve flowed into Connecticut and some of the resorts, and what you have left is a resilient, resourceful and tough-minded culture built out of farmers who dug more rocks than potatoes out of the northern Maine soil, factory workers who lived and died in company towns such as Woonsocket, Nantucket whalers and fishermen from ports such as New Bedford, Point Judith and Gloucester.  While a lot of New England folks have left their hard-labor roots these days, it remains a part of their soul.

That’s good in a lot of ways, not so good in others. 

A few years ago, my wife and I were in California, enjoying the majesty and hiking the trails of Yosemite National Park.  One of the best-known sights there is Half Dome, a huge mass of hardened lava that formed in a volcano's heart.  The stone and soil that once surrounded the lava eroded away over time, but Half Dome remains.  It's nearly as hard and resistant to change as a New Englander’s opinion.

Such unshakable views probably help to explain why the New England Fishery Management Council has been unable to stem the decline of some of the most important groundfish stocks in the region, if not in the nation and maybe the world—not an exaggeration, when your realize that New England codfish stocks fed a substantial portion of the Christian world for close to half of a millennium.

Unfortunately, they’re not providing much food for anyone right about now, largely because cod stocks have fallen to such low levels that they having enough trouble sustaining themselves.

But New England fishermen still believe things are fine.

Sure, they’re catching fewer fish, but they’re still not willing to admit that’s because they caught far too many before.  They honestly still believe, as an article in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette announced, that there’s

The article, which was actually pretty moderate for the northeast, alleged that

“The decay of [a large fishing vessel at a Martha’s Vineyard pier] has little to do with a lack of fish, [a local fisherman] said.  Instead, he said, the main struggle for fishermen these days involves the array of state and federal regulations and the ever-increasing costs associated with a way of life as old as the island itself…”
Yet despite that fisherman’s views, it’s hard to believe that the fleet wouldn’t be better off if the Georges Bank cod stock had been allowed to rebuild to the abundance level targeted by fisheries managers.  

Instead, mismanagement by the New England Fishery Management Council has it still languishing at something less than 10% of that number.

The Gulf of Maine stock of cod, which inhabits more northerly waters, is in even worse shape, with the best available science putting it at just 3% of managers’ target (although, once again, fishermen challenge that estimate).

But such numbers don’t seem to faze the New England Council, who seems more concerned that managers are requiring fishermen to leave cod in the water than the fact that there are few left to catch.

The New England Fishery Management Council described the action as one which would

“allow fishing opportunities on healthy stocks for the economically strapped groundfish fleet, while also providing greater access to a portion of the Georges Bank sea scallop resource that has not been open to the fishery since 1994.
“Currently, there are close to 7,000 square miles of habitat and groundfish closures on Georges Bank and in the Great South Channel.  The measures selected by the Council would maintain some portion of the existing closures, and open others, resulting in 2,000 square miles of habitat closures going forward…”
Of course, what wasn’t said is that fishermen want to get into the closed areas so badly because there weren’t many fish anywhere else.  Opening up roughly 70% of the currently closed areas—which is not a done deal, as it still requires signoff from the National Marine Fisheries Service—would be done, as the Council press release makes clear, for purely economic reasons, without regard for the needs of the resource.

It’s not hard to liken the fishermen’s actions to an old-time military campaign.  In fishing the cod stocks down to the brink of collapse, they have already effectively destroyed the "enemy" crops.  Now, in opening the closed areas and dragging weighted trawls across critical habitat, they’re effectively plowing salt into the ground, to assure that such crops cannot grow and thrive in the future.

To add insult to injury, the Council is also asking NMFS to lift the observer requirement on groundfish boats.  

Ostensibly, they're doing that because the boats don’t want to bear the costs associated with carrying an observer.  But it’s not hard to note that while the Council is justifying opening the closed areas to give groundfishermen “fishing opportunities on healthy stocks,” with no observers on board, it’s impossible to know how many fish from badly threatened stocks such as cod will somehow find their way into fish totes, or will be discarded, dead, back into the ocean…

Needless to say, the conservation community is opposed to eliminating both the closed areas and the observers.

Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for the conservation group Oceana, noted in an op-ed for the New York Times that

“two new proposals by the New England Fishery Management Council…threaten to undo years of work to protect the Atlantic cod and other New England species.  This one-two punch to the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks may be the knockout blow [for such fisheries].
“First, the council is preparing to drastically reduce the amount of protected habitat in New England waters, including by nearly 80 percent around the Georges Bank.  The plan would allow for expansion of bottom trawling and dredging, two of the most destructive fishing methods, into protected habitats.
“In addition to gutting habitat protections, the council wants to suspend a program that places observers on fishing vessels to monitor compliance.  But without monitoring the numbers of fish being taken out of the ocean, there is no way to accurately determine the health of their populations or ensure that quotas are reported…
“Pressure for even more change looms.  Dissatisfied with its current profits, the scallop industry is pushing the council to reopen portions of the most important New England cod habitat on Georges Bank, where the bottom-scraping scallop dredges would destroy any hope of rebuilding cod populations…
“Similar pressure is coming from the cod, haddock and flounder industries…To stay viable for another year, the industries claim that they need additional access to closed areas.
“But as they try to stay in business in the short term, they are risking the long-term existence of their fishery.  Closures, however painful, are vital to their survival.  Weakening protections will undoubtedly continue the collapse of groundfish stocks, including Atlantic cod…
“The temporary price of protecting habitats and monitoring and enforcing quotas should be seen as in investment in the future.  It may take years to begin to fully appreciate the returns on these investments, but anything less would be irresponsible, and ultimately far more painful to the people who depend on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods.”
Brogan is undoubtedly right.  If any enterprise, including a fishing-related business, is to survive, an investment must be made in its future.

But New England fishermen don’t quite see it that way.  

They’ve been killing codfish for four hundred years, and have no plans to stop doing so now.

Their determination to carry on is as firm and unyielding as granite.

New Englanders are a determined people, and that determination will assure that there will always be a New England.  It may also assure that, sometime soon, if they want a good chowder, they’ll have to import the codfish from Iceland.  

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