Thursday, December 17, 2015


Over the past few years, the collapse of New England cod stocks, and the growing restrictions placed on the northeast groundfishing fleet, has been a bigger and bigger part of the fisheries news.  We hear a lot of talk about fishermen selling their boats and going out of business as a result of strict regulations, but it is sometimes difficult to get a good feeling for what’s going on.

There is no question that groundfish landings are far smaller than they were a generation ago.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s reports of commercial landings, recent cod harvest peaked in 1990, when over 96,000,000 pounds were landed.  By 2000, that figure had dropped to just 25,000,000 pounds, and fell even farther, to a little over 5,000,000 pounds, in 2013.  This year, the figure will be much smaller.

Of course, groundfish boats catch a lot of fish other than groundfish.  The question is whether such other species will be enough to keep them afloat.

A recent study released by the Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares Project provides a good first look at the recent landings of vessels with limited access groundfish permits.
The data set used in the study begins in 2007, when cod landings were nearly 17,000,000 pounds, and extends through 2013.  

Throughout that period, cod and other groundfish never comprised much more than a quarter of the overall landings of the groundfishing fleet, with the exact proportion ranging from a high of 26.9% in 2009 (when cod landings totaled nearly 20,000,000 pounds), to a low of 16.5% in 2013.

Thus, groundfish regulations had a lesser overall impact on the income of the fleet than they would have if the various groundfish species made up a majority of the catch.  Still, there is no question that the groundfish restrictions have been painful.

That pain wasn’t shared equally among all of the vessels.  Researchers found that vessels in the 30 to 50 foot range, which includes many boats in the fleet, had a much greater dependence upon groundfish than either smaller or larger boats.  Smaller vessels, which fish inshore waters for a greater variety of species, had the least dependence on the groundfish resource.

Although the poundage of groundfish landed fell from 70,000,000 in 2007 to 42,000,000 in 2013, the poundage of non-groundfish species landed remained relatively consistent.  In 2007, groundfish boats landed about 214,000,000 of non-groundfish species; in 2013, that figure was essentially unchanged (although it did vary between 221,000,000 pounds and 183,000,000 pounds in the interim.

Unfortunately, from an economic standpoint, all species are not equal.    

For the most part, groundfish are pretty valuable.  In 2013, the average ex vessel price for cod was about $2.10 per pound, while haddock was worth around $1.45 and yellowtail flounder about the same.

The value of non-groundfish species varies widely, and some ports are able to fish on more valuable species than are available elsewhere.  In that regard, southern groundfish ports—those south and west of Chatham, Massachusetts—have more valuable non-groundfish species available to them than do ports in northern New England.

The study found that the primary non-groundfish targets of the southern groundfish boats are monkfish, which sold for $0.95 per pound in 2013, skates, which brought an ex vessel price of $0.33 and squid, which could be sold for $1.06 per pound.

On the other hand, groundfish boats sailing out of ports bordering the Gulf of Maine had far less attractive options.  

Historically, they were significant participants in the northern shrimp fishery, but that fishery has suffered from a combination of rapidly warming waters and overharvest, and is currently closed.  Some Massachusetts vessels are also active in the spiny dogfish fishery, but with dogfish selling for just 0.16 per pound, it takes a lot of dogfish to make up for lost groundfish landings.

Throughout the northeast, NMFS records indicate that various boats supplemented their harvest with other seasonally-available non-groundfish species that ranged from sea scallops to black sea bass to bluefin tuna.

However, it is clear that, particularly in northern New England, the reduction in groundfish landings has had a real economic impact on the fleet, which has been made worse by a change in the groundfish mix.

In 2007, cod was arguably the most important component of the groundfish complex, with vessels landing nearly 17,000,000 pounds, worth about $1.60 per pound at the dock.  In that year, groundfish boats also landed about 8,000,000 pounds of haddock, at $1.55 per pound, and just 1,700,000 pounds of Acadian redfish, which sold for only $0.58. 

By 2013, cod landings were less than a third of what they were in 2007; while the price increased by $0.50 per pound, such increase didn’t come anywhere close to making up for the lost volume.  Haddock landings increased by about 25%, and so were worth a little bit more even though the price per pound had dripped a few cents.  However, landings of Acadian redfish had surged; harvest more than quadrupled, to 7,800,000 pounds, although the price slipped just a bit to $0.55.

Thus, because of the change in species mix, the 42,000,000 pounds of groundfish that were landed in 2013 were probably worth quite a bit less, in the aggregate, than the same amount of groundfish were worth in 2007.

Groundfishermen are thus caught in a double bind, with regulation reducing the size of their landings and the fish that they can land being worth less.

Yet, however unfortunate their plight, it is a fate they brought onto themselves.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which manages northeastern groundfish, has been historically hostile to regulation.  Until changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, made in 2006, forced them to do so, they had never imposed hard catch limits on any species under their jurisdiction, and tolerated ovefishing for year after year.  More than 15 years ago, the New England Council already knew that Gulf of Maine cod were in danger of collapse, and yet the fishermen who dominated the panel refused to take meaningful action.

New England groundfishermen are now reaping the inevitable consequences of their actions. 

Instead of embracing the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, which might allow their stocks to rebuild, they support snake oil remedies such as H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act which, if passed, would only assure that their industry’s lot will never improve.

The plight of the northeastern groundfishermen must serve as a lesson to the rest of the nation.

Fish are not an inexhaustible resource, and they will not be restored through benign neglect.

Magnuson-Stevens is the most effective fisheries law in the world, which has proven itself on every coast in the nation—except that of New England.  That is no fault of the law, but the fault of New Englanders, who must at some point accept that the ocean has limits, and that they exceeded those limits a long time ago.

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