Breaking a System That Isn’t Broken?

Ken Stump is Policy Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Not so long ago, New England’s historic groundfish fisheries were the poster child for chronic overfishing. Today, the region’s fisheries are becoming a good news story for the first time in years under a new system of fishing sectors and catch limits implemented by Amendment 16 to the groundfish fishery management plan. The number of stocks experiencing overfishing is sharply down; catch limits are in place; a number of previously overfished species are rebounding; and fishing revenues and allowable catch limits on healthy stocks are going up.

But you wouldn’t know any of that by reading Brian Rothschild’s recent editorial in the New Bedford Standard Times, published on August 10th. Rothschild, a long-time fisheries scientist and academician based in New Bedford, paints a bleak picture of uncaring federal bureaucrats and inflexible, draconian regulations that are killing fishermen’s jobs. The facts simply don’t bear him out, but that has not stopped him from declaring that the whole system of federal fisheries management is broken.  His exaggerated portrayal of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the source of everything wrong with fisheries management lacks only horns and a tail to be complete.

It would be easy to dismiss the Professor’s jeremiad as a piece of political grandstanding were it not for the fact that his views are taken seriously by Massachusetts political leaders. Last year, Rothschild was instrumental in making the case for Governor Patrick’s petition to the Secretary of Commerce urging him to loosen catch restrictions on rebuilding fish stocks. Having lost this argument with both the petition and a similar argument with the federal court, Rothschild and others are looking to Congress for a legislative solution. Rothschild appears to believe that nothing less than a congressional commission and a new national fisheries oversight board can fix what is allegedly broken at NOAA.

Rothschild’s exhortations to loosen all restrictions and free up more fish in the name of jobs echo sentiments heard decades ago. In the early 1980s, as fish stocks began to recover from the massive overkill by foreign fishing fleets a decade earlier, New England’s fisheries managers made a fateful decision to abandon the use of unpopular catch limits as unduly restrictive on jobs. So the managers opted for a complex, ineffective system of effort-based rules. With no hard limits, fisheries initially boomed, but it was not long before scientists began to warn that fishing mortality had reached dangerously high levels and was not sustainable. Predictably, the scientific warnings went unheeded, and the boom was soon followed by bust as stocks of cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder collapsed. By the 1990s, most commercially valuable groundfish stocks were considered badly overfished.[1]

The fisheries are finally beginning to rebound after years of diminishing returns and hardship.  Professor Rothschild alleges that Amendment 16’s new catch limits unduly restrict fishing and ignore science, but he of all people should know better. The Department of Commerce Inspector General’s 2009 report on groundfish fishery management found that the science on which the New England regulations are based meets the MSA’s “best scientific information available” requirements and is considered world-class. Moreover, the IG’s report concluded that the region’s fishery managers often set catch levels at the maximum point in the range recommended by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, even when considerable evidence pointed in the opposite direction.[2]

As for the claim that the new sector system is leading to job-killing consolidation that shuts out fishermen, the fact is that consolidation was already a fait accompli under the old days-at-sea program – by 2007, almost 60% of the groundfish were caught by only 10% of the active fleet.[3] The ruthless logic of unrestricted access in a free-for-all scrum for fish has its own way of creating winners and losers and consolidating control over a fishery, as Rothschild knows. Opponents of the groundfish sector allocation program have offered little in the way of alternatives except to go back to a way of doing business that hurt more fishermen than it helped.

Professor Rothschild and others like him seem intent on replaying the same tired old script that took New England fisheries management down the wrong path in the past. If they succeed in their campaign to dismantle Amendment 16, years of painstaking and painful effort to restore the fortunes of the fisheries could be derailed just when those efforts are beginning to pay off. Hopefully cooler heads in Congress will recognize good news when they see it and let efforts to rebuild New England’s fisheries continue apace. Far from offering a useful way forward, Rothschild’s call to tear down the federal fisheries management system and start over is a prescription for repeating the painful mistakes of the past.

[1] V.C. Anthony (1993), The state of groundfish resources off the northeastern United States, Fisheries 18(3): 12-17.

[2] Department of Commerce, Office of Inspector General Investigative Report, Letter to Sen. Snowe re: the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the Quality of the Science Used to Determine Catch Limits for New England Commercial Fisheries, Feb. 26, 2009. 42 pp.

[3] Michael Clayton (2010), Consolidation of the New England Multispecies Fishery between 1996 and 2007, White Paper, indicating that 10% of the active vessels accounted for 58% of the total landings by weight in 2007, available at: http://www.caploggroup.com/www.caploggroup.com/Publications.html. Groundfish revenues (as opposed to catches) were also concentrated, with the highest-earning 20% of vessels accounting for 66% of revenues in 2007 and 75% in 2010: Andrew Kitts et al. (2010), Interim Report for Fishing Year 2010 of the Performance of the Northeast Multispecies Groundfish Fishery, May 2010-January 2011, Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference Document 11-07, p. 11 and Tables 14, 1


5 Responses to Breaking a System That Isn’t Broken?

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    There is a lot of wishful thinking in this post when it credits the end of overfshing to sectors and recently adopted annual catch limits. No one will know if groundfish overfishing is occurring or not until assessments are completed. No one knows if stocks are “reboundng” under sectors or not. To date only four assessments have been completed since sectors were adopted (GB winter flounder, SNE/MA winter flounder, GOM Winter flounder, and GB yellowtail flounder) and they have less than a full year of data under the sector regime. The SNE/MA winter flounder assessment shows that overfishing ended in 2008, two years before sectors; the GB winter flounder assessment shows that overfishing ended in 2006, four years before sectors were adopted. The GB yellowtail flounder assessment shows that overfishing may not have ended yet – even though there has been a hard quota on this stock since 2004 and it has never been exceeded.

    There are expected to be numerous benefits and advantages to the sector program, but let’s wait to see if they actaully happen before crowing over our accomplishments. Much of the rebuilding we have seen so far (GB haddock, redfish, GOM cod, for example) occurred under the oft-criticized days at sea system. Let’s hope progress continues under sectors.

    As for this comment: “Moreover, the IG’s report concluded that the region’s fishery managers often set catch levels at the maximum point in the range recommended by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.” This is a misrepresentation of the report which cites only one example of this occurring (GB yellowtail flounder) in recent years. And the report ignores that the science center never mentioned the caveats when briefing the Council on the stock’s status immediately before the vote on Amendment 13.

    • Talking Fish says:

      Some wishful thinking is in order in New England, don’t you think? Mr. Bigelow is right that full stock assessments have not yet been done after the last fishing year, but initial information suggests that only one sub-ACL was exceeded: northern windowpane flounder. While he is also correct that the old days-at-sea system did increase the number of stocks that were no longer subject to annual overfishing, the lack of precision of the tool used—cutting back more days-at-sea or increasing closed areas, primarily—often resulted in over-regulation of harvesting in our opinion, and seemed to land particularly hard on coastal fishermen. According to the Council’s analysis, using the old methods to meet the new catch requirements for the 2010-11 fishing year might have produced gross fleet groundfish revenues ranging from 8.7% to 28.3% lower than the 2005-07 averages. Moreover, in every length class of boats evaluated, the impacts would fall more directly on boats less than 50 feet. The boats on which the most significant impacts would be felt were twice as likely to be under 50 feet than over 70 feet.

      Mr. Bigelow also properly corrected the post in another respect: the IG report cites only one example of this specific instance of a catch limit recommendation. However, the NEFMC has consistently set acceptable biological catch for stocks with no more than 50% confidence of achieving the required rebuilding dates, which is the highest risk level allowed under the National Standard 1 guidelines. This approach supports Ken Stump’s statement that catch limits are often set at the maximum point in the recommended range.

      Talking Fish thanks Mr. Bigelow for his corrections and comments.

  • Ken Stump says:

    Belated thanks to Mr. Bigelow for his observations and thoughtful comments. One comment that I must take strong exception to, however, is the charge that my opinion was“crowing” over the benefits of Amendment 16’s new rules. I may be guilty of pointing out indications of good news, but I was hardly crowing. There is every reason to be somewhat circumspect about the ultimate outcome, I agree. Defending the new catch-limit rules against those who want to torpedo them before we have even had time to find out how well they have worked is hardly crowing.

    The ultimate test of effectiveness for the new catch-limit rules will be their responsiveness to new information. The inherent uncertainty in fisheries information means that there is always a risk of overfishing. If overfishing is still indicated in the next round of GARM assessments, the ACLs will need to be adjusted accordingly. In regions where firm catch limits have been used as a central management tool for many years, such as the North Pacific, adjustments to the allowable cach (either upward or downward) are routinely made as new information becomes available. The responsiveness to new information and the ability to adjust ACLs in a timely manner will be the ultimate indication that the new catch-limit rules are really working.

    Ken Stump, Marine Fish Conservation Network

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    Mr. Stump says this: “If overfishing is still indicated in the next round of GARM assessments, the ACLs will need to be adjusted accordingly.”

    Most recent ACLs were expected to have less than a 25 percent chance of overfishing, and catches have been less than most of the ACLs. If overfishing is still occurring after the next round of assessments then the problem will clearly be with the assessments, old or new.

    • Talking Fish says:

      Talking Fish is inclined to agree with you. Of course, there are many reasons why a model could be producing inaccurate estimates. We would look first at the data inputs, which may not be accurately capturing true mortality out on the water. The model isn’t off the hook either, but bad data is more likely the problem in our opinion.

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