Net Gain for Fish, Fishery

Peter Baker directs the Pew Environment Group’s Northeast Fisheries program. This op-ed originally ran on Saturday, April 23 in the Boston Herald. You can view the original piece here.

Last May, the New England groundfish industry transitioned to a new management system, known as sectors, in which groups of fishermen voluntarily form cooperatives to fish for cod, haddock and other bottom-dwelling species.

Each co-op receives a share of the annual catch limit based on the historic landings of its members. In return for agreeing to respect these science-based limits, and to not throw any legal-sized fish overboard, all sector participants are given latitude to make decisions about how, when and where to fish. This ensures that our regional marine resources are used wisely and fishermen have flexibility in their business planning.

Preliminary numbers gathered by the National Marine Fisheries Service show that sectors have been successful in keeping ocean harvests well within the annual catch limits. Indeed, with the fishing year drawing to a close on April 30, no sector has exceeded any of its allotments.

Moreover, the price that fishermen are paid for their catch has also risen significantly, as has overall revenue for the fishery to date. In the first eight months of the program, revenues were up 8 percent over last year. From both an economic and conservation point of view, the system is working.

Some fishermen, however, argue that they did not receive a large enough allocation. Meanwhile a number of shoreside processors have seen a decline in the amount of fish they are buying and an increase in what they are paying fishermen for their product.

This has led to a polarized and charged political atmosphere. In fact, some elected officials are now suing the federal government to roll back the new system in an effort, they say, to help the small-boat fleet. Yet, rather than scrapping the plan, there are alternatives to assist small-boat family fishermen.

First, Massachusetts is well represented on the New England Fishery Management Council, with five of the 18 seats. Since the council has the authority to set limits on how individual species are allocated, the state’s representatives could add conditions to improve the agreements relating to the transfer of fish among sectors.

Second, a new system of permit banks is being developed in New England. Permit banks buy fishing permits and use the quota to allow fishermen to lease allotments at below-market prices, keeping the local fleet solvent and reducing individual debt loads. Two commercial fishing organizations have started permit banks in Massachusetts. The state received $1 million in federal financing to start a permit bank and should examine existing models and work with local stakeholders.

Finally, a group of Massachusetts officials led by Sen. John Kerry have promoted rolling over this year’s uncaught fish quota to next year. This proposal must still be reviewed by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to ensure it can be done without further depleting stocks. However, it could represent an opportunity to catch more fish in 2011 and 2012. These extra fish could be made available to those who now have the lowest quotas, allowing more of the region’s fishermen to prosper under the new system.

Many family fishermen are being hurt by the recession, and we must find ways to assist them. But their long-term interests, as well as those of our region, will not be helped by undercutting efforts to better manage one of New England’s most precious resources — our fish populations.

Instead of working to overturn the sector system, we’d be better off finding cooperative, community-based solutions that work for our ocean and for the fishermen who depend on it.



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