Yesterday, New England’s groundfishermen—from Rhode Island to Maine and from day boat to trip boat—took back their fishery from the politicians. In a letter addressed to the New England Congressional delegation, more than one hundred boat owners stated clearly that what they need most now is stability, profitability, and flexibility. In one of those moments that have happened too rarely over the past many years, all I can say is “amen.”
The letter was written in response to politicians’ calls for the dismantling of the sector system for the groundfish fishery, a management system that went into effect in May 2010 and has been lambasted ever since by a small vocal minority of fishermen. While critics of sector management frame the system as if it puts New England’s iconic groundfish fishery in danger of being controlled by only a few colossal corporate boats, the letter reminds the delegation that the entire groundfish fleet in New England is a small business fleet. There are some bigger small businesses and some smaller small businesses, but there is no danger of takeover by factory ships or foreign fleets. The small business owners who signed this letter say that the politicians are putting their well-being at risk by calling for the overturn of the sector system.
These boat owners were likely appreciative of the Massachusetts delegation’s intent in trying to intervene on the industry’s behalf. But in the letter, they demonstrate that they are of one mind that the new sector system is one they can work with, that they want to work with. The outcomes they have been fighting for–stability, profitability, and flexibility–are what groundfish sectors are all about. Almost no one who fished under the old days-at-sea management system wants to return to that failed program.
There are still many groundfish management problems facing the New England Council, and Congress could certainly help resolve them by securing funding to improve fisheries data collection, stock assessments, gear research and development, and to cover the cost of on-board monitors. Senator Kerry has introduced important legislation that may well help support these needed initiatives, and it would be nice to see thoughtful discussion and action on these real needs in Congress.
The message of the unequivocal and unprecedented fishing industry letter sent yesterday is that the problems of the few in the fishery should not be used to paint the management system as fundamentally flawed. With this letter, a diverse group of fishermen publicly defended the sector system and implicitly pushed back strongly against both those who have attempted to repeal it through lawsuits and those Congressional offices that have sought to politicize the fishery. If Washington ends up breaking the regionally-designed sector program by its interventions, then Washington will own the results. But for these fishermen, New England is on the right course. Again, amen.