There’s something wrong with this picture

Atlantic cod stocks have failed to recover after decades of Council management (Photo Credit: Hans-Petter Fjeld)

What’s wrong with this picture? Earlier this month, at the same time the Patrick/Murray Administration was demanding $21 million federal dollars in economic fisheries damages, many of the best fishing businesses that have been catching cod, haddock, and other groundfish in Massachusetts and New England wrote a joint letter to their elected officials telling them that their political actions are putting their businesses at risk. And the politicians and the fishermen are both talking about the same management program.

Here’s what’s  wrong: too many of the Massachusetts elected officials are looking backward at fisheries to score political points and the people actually in the fishing business desperately want to look forward so they can get on with their lives.

For the last year, Governor Patrick charged his fishing agency with developing evidence to prove that Massachusetts fishermen are in fact in economic crisis because of the new catch share program that was implemented to restore health to groundfishing in New England. But now that the results of all that effort have surfaced, what’s evident is that there’s practically nothing there. His disaster claims could not be supported even by deliberate manipulation of the data his team developed.

Contrary to the local headlines and talking points from Massachusetts politicians rushing to align themselves with “the working man,” there is no evidence of a disaster in the Massachusetts groundfishing industry. In fact, the Massachusetts groundfish fleet netted $3 million more under the new program than the previous year, even though fuel costs soared some 30%.

The group of fishermen that the state analyzed most closely appear to have lost $405,000 year-to-year, which is not good news, but they left more than 1 million pounds of the fish they were allocated in the water, which doesn’t make any sense. If they leased those fishing rights, their losses would have been closer to $135,000. Loss of crew revenues in that group were real and troubling, on the order of $240,000.

There seems to be a phantom group of fishermen that Massachusetts politicians are trying to protect with this $21 million reparations claim. That request might not have been as significant when federal dollars were flowing more freely and the Massachusetts economy was strong. But the problem now is they are failing to understand and represent the very serious interests of the real fishermen who are out on the water. Therefore, they risk squandering whatever scarce federal fishery dollars still exist for their own political reasons.

This is not to say that the New England (not just Massachusetts) groundfishery is not still teetering on the cliffs of disaster. New science estimates for Gulf of Maine cod may suggest the potential for economic losses in the future that might be very high. Moreover, the federally-subsidized costs of monitoring groundfish catch in the future—which are critical to good fishery science—cannot yet be absorbed by the region’s small fishing operations.

Commerce Secretary Bryson will be coming to New England in December to learn about our fisheries. It would be a tragic loss to use his visit to propagate the fisherman-as-victim narrative. Massachusetts in particular has some of the nation’s superstars of catching, processing, distributing, marketing, and cooking fish like Atlantic cod . What Massachusetts politicians need to make Secretary Bryson see during his visit is that Massachusetts fisheries are looking up, not down; that they are a healthy and receptive place for public and private investments. They should show the Secretary that Massachusetts has some concrete ideas of how this iconic industry can be the launch pad for expanded economic activity by adding value, profit, and jobs to every pound of fish that is landed in this state. They need to show him that this state is faced forward, rather than backward.

That is the sort of political thinking and leadership that could raise all the boats.


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