New England Fisheries

A Quick Look at the Implementation and Impacts of Amendment 16

On May 1, 2010, sweeping changes were implemented in the New England groundfish fishery, the biggest change in New England fishing since the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA)was first passed in 1976. “Amendment 16,” which went into effect on the first day of the 2010 fishing year, shifted the fishery from what was known as the days-at-sea system where fishing effort was regulated indirectly to a sector-based quota management system where the catch limits were strictly specified in pounds of fish caught. While preliminary data shows that sectors have led to increased gross revenues for many fishermen, the new system has also created economic winners and losers in the fleet. As a result, it has been the topic of much recent controversy.

Haddock, one of the species managed under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (Photo credit: NOAA)

Before the implementation of Amendment 16 and the sector system, the New England groundfish fishery (cod, haddock, flounders, etc.) was managed exclusively through the days-at-sea program, in which fishermen were allotted a certain number of “days at sea” per fishing season, and for some species they also had “trip limits,” allowing only a certain number of fish to be landed per day no matter how many they caught. The program also included a system of fishing closures, often putting vast areas off-bounds for part or all of the year. Unfortunately, these restrictions led to inefficiency – fishermen shoveled dead or dying fish overboard once they had reached their daily limits, letting catch go to waste – and fishing in dangerous conditions – fisherman did not want to waste allotted time or miss out on fishing an area before a scheduled closure happened. There were also inequities: one day fishing with a large modern dragger resulted in a lot more fish being caught than one day on a small, near-shore boat. The fleet experiences rampant consolidation under the days-at-sea program.

Amendment 16 and the sector system were implemented to help alleviate these problems and to allow fishermen a greater degree of flexibility. Sectors are voluntary, fishermen-run, community-based cooperatives that are allocated a share of the annual catch limit in a fishery.  Members of a sector are responsible for how they use the group’s share of the catch. Sectors allow fishermen more control over their fishing – how long each trip will last and how much of their allotted catch they will land at any time. They can time their catches to high market prices and the weather and cooperate with each other if one of them catches too much of one species. Amendment 16 also included stricter, science-based annual catch limits to comply with new requirements from the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Just over a week after the start of the 2010 fishing year, on May 9, 2010, a federal lawsuit was filed contesting the legality of the new sector system. The cities of New Bedford and Gloucester, along with a small number of primarily Massachusetts industry groups, claimed that Amendment 16 was created through a biased process that did not properly take into account the desires of all of the stakeholders in the groundfish fishery. They charged that Amendment 16 and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which approved the plan, violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other provisions of federal law. The federal government, along with the Conservation Law Foundation (participating in the lawsuit as an intervenor) argued that the process did indeed involve a thorough and inclusive deliberative process – in fact, Amendment 16 was supposed to be ready for the start of the 2009 fishing year, but its implementation date was pushed back to 2010 in order to fully consider all of the options for management of the groundfish fishery.

The lawsuit was argued in front of a federal district court judge in mid-March of this year and the parties and others are waiting for her ruling. In the meantime, several positive developments are coming to the fishery in the coming weeks – catch limits for many groundfish stocks will increase on May 1, 2011, the start of the next fishing year, and the U.S. Commerce Department recently announced the creation of an Economic Assistance Outreach program to meet with New England fishing communities to develop solutions for economic development. In addition, the preliminary results from the 2010 fishing year show that sectors are working – for example, according to NMFS data, 2010 gross revenues for sectors landing in Massachusetts are up 11% over 2009 gross revenues, and in New Bedford, this increase is even higher at 27% over 2009 gross revenues.

Amendment 16 and the controversy surrounding the new plan are very complicated: it is hard to summarize a three-year, 55,000 page administrative record in a few hundred words but we wanted to start somewhere. The Amendment 16 lawsuit, the successes of and problems with the sector system, and the science used to create catch limits used in fishery management decisions will all be thoroughly discussed on Talking Fish in the coming days and weeks. We hope you’ll join us as we “talk fish.”


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