The Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) of the New England Fisheries Management Council met yesterday and today in Boston to review the report developed by the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute (MFI) in support of Governor Patrick’s request to the U.S. Department of Commerce for emergency relief for Massachusetts fishermen. The MFI report concluded that recent fishery management actions had produced losses on the order of $21 million dollars for Massachusetts fishermen and that catch limits could be raised without compromising the health of the fish populations or the conservation objectives of the management plan.
The SSC is a distinguished, international panel of scientists, some of whom have been assessing fish populations in New England for decades. Specifically, the SSC was asked to review several positions taken by the MFI report:
1. Whether the methodologies used to calculate the biological reference points and the catch limits represented the best available science;
2. Whether the methodology chosen to set catch limits resulted in an overly conservative approach because of “double counting” of scientific uncertainty;
3. Whether there were other aspects of the fish modeling, such as the presence of so-called “retrospective patterns” in the models, that resulted in overly cautious adjustments of the catch recommendations;
4. Whether there were any recommendations for additional information that could be used in the future to improve the assessment process.
The SSC did not agree with any of the science-related assertions in the MFI report. In their discussion, they noted a number of places where the conclusions were based on faulty premises or ignored widely recognized issues that the scientists who had developed the original catch limit recommendations had addressed when they set the limits.
They concluded that the stock assessment and catch specification process was fully consistent with best scientific practices, that there was no “double counting” of uncertainty or risk, and that the annual catch limits could not be increased without increasing, in some cases significantly, the risk of meeting the conservation objectives of the New England Council and the federal statute that controls harvest, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
In their brief economic review, the SSC rejected the analysis and conclusions from the MFI report. Aside from noting that it was questionable to draw economic or social conclusions from a new management plan that had only been in effect for six months, the SSC noted that the report misrepresented $21 million of theoretical losses as actual losses and did not account for the revenues from the numerous other species that groundfishermen pursue in addition to the groundfish species. A number of SSC members also indicated that comparisons to the 2009 fishing year were not proper since the scientists had all concluded that the 2009 catch limits were set significantly too high for many species. The SSC agreed by and large that the economics of the new fishery plan looked positive for the first year, and provided no evidence of an economic crisis.
The SSC did acknowledge that there was always room for improvement in fish stock assessments and that additional research on both the assessment methodologies and a range of social and economic effects should be considered in the future.
The MFI report has now been rejected as a basis for emergency action or even immediate reconsideration of existing harvest levels by the Department of Commerce, a national scientific meeting of fisheries experts, and by the New England SSC. It is time to move on and focus on continuing to improve the management system in New England so that we can restore healthy fish populations that support thriving and diverse regional fishing communities as quickly as practicable.