“Groundfish resources off New England have experienced significant changes in abundance during the past 30 years and have now fallen to all time record lows.”
– Ronald Brown, Secretary of Commerce. Declaration of Disaster Affecting the New England Fishing Industry – March 18, 1994
“…I don’t hear so much in New England that ‘there are plenty of fish, our scientists got it wrong’…right now what I hear – and what I see in the eyes of fishermen – is people are saying ‘we can’t find codfish’ and they are really worried about their ability to stay in business…”
– John Bullard, NOAA Northeast Administrator. MPBN Radio Interview – August 29, 2012
Why does this current groundfish crisis seem so familiar? As the populations of New England’s cod, haddock and flounder have continued to decline, it’s not surprising that the number of fishing boats chasing them have declined. The business of consolidation within any industry is often a fact of doing business and we know that consolidation has been happening in the New England groundfish fleet for decades. So far, the New England Fishery Management Council has avoided any serious approach to addressing fleet diversity and consolidation as it kicks the can down the road on the development of Amendment 18, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has been willing to watch from the sidelines. Some members of the New England Congressional delegation are trying to reduce the potentially devastating economic blow to fishing families and coastal communities by seeking federal disaster assistance, and for their good intentions and hard work, are getting a bizarre and negative counter reaction. And, NOAA appears to look for grossly wrong-headed short-term fixes, such as the concept of an accelerated effort to open some of the best remaining habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine to increased trawling and dredging.
Consolidation, fleet diversity, maintaining our region’s fishing heritage, federal assistance and creating new economic opportunities for fishing families are all important and serious issues, but they continue to avoid the core problem. The bottom line is that when there are no fish, there will not be a fishing industry.
What NOAA can do now is to exhibit leadership: stop looking towards actions which would heave the decades-long saga of the New England groundfishery into the next episode and, instead, focus on restoring the fish populations which are the basis for the jobs, resources and tremendous benefits which we all need and enjoy. Don’t wait for the elections and for Congress to sort itself out. Don’t seek to cheat on “inaccessible” fish stocks by opening closed areas. Catch limits which are not based on scientific data may be more politically palatable, but will only continue to mask the simple fact that the region’s best fishing captains aren’t finding fish because the fish are not there.
Here’s a proposal to NOAA: Follow the law. Tell the truth. Do the right thing.
Realistic catch limits are based on scientific data and incorporate a responsible amount of precaution. NOAA can establish rebuilding timelines which create a much higher likelihood of restoring fish populations. Ending overfishing is not just a legal requirement but a best management practice.
In addition to strict scientifically set catch limits, the most basic component for healthy fish populations and ocean wildlife is to protect and maintain quality habitat. This is an area of management which NOAA can effectively control. NOAA needs to come to grips with the reality that better protection and restoration of degraded habitat is not only integral to the recovery of fish populations, but serves to create the long term resilience that fish populations need when the more unpredictable effects of climate change hit. Existing habitat areas and areas already closed to bottom trawling and dredging, juvenile groundfish in nursery areas and essential fish habitat are building blocks for restoring the fishery. This is a Basic 101 Management issue.
Fishing families and coastal communities deserve any help they can get in an economic crisis. Over a year ago the Department of Commerce deployed Economic Development and Assistance Teams to assess economic impacts to New England communities. Those reports are gathering dust. High-level interagency coordination helped develop solutions in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and they can do that on a respectable scale in New England. Support communities with the available programs of the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and community grants.