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


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