Illegal and Wrong

Protection for habitat areas like Cashes Ledge was frequently debated in 2013 (Photo credit: Brian Skerry/NEOO)

Wednesday’s New England Fishery Management Council’s Groundfish Committee meeting was … depressing. As the expression goes, just when I think I am seeing light at the end of the tunnel I realize that it is the headlights of the on-coming bus. Once again, current events—bad as they are—seem about to be exploited to produce an even more dismal future. The topic was throwing open the decades-long fishery closed areas to exploitation again.

New England’s new Regional National Marine Fisheries Service Administrator, John Bullard, was there. He is a good man who is not afraid of taking on challenges—a good thing, because the challenge of creating a more prosperous New England groundfishery has broken the backs of many before him. John has done a good job of coming into this mess with an open mind, holding listening sessions around the region. In those sessions, he often focused on two things in his comments: New England groundfishermen are facing a crisis, and there is an occasional misalignment between doing what’s right and following the law. Let’s think about how yesterday reflected those observations.

First, assume that New England’s groundfishery is in crisis. Actually, we don’t have to assume that any more since the federal government has now officially declared a groundfish disaster in New England. But no one has specifically defined the specific economic or social aspects of that disaster. Gross revenues continue to rise each year under the new sector system. Yes, some important fish populations are not recovering, but specifically which fishing businesses are at risk as a result and what should be done about them?

What are the first two steps that get drilled into any disaster first responder, disaster 101? Step 1: call for help. Step 2: assess the situation.  Without taking that second step, the best results are blind luck; the worst results are deepening the crisis. The New England Council, the region’s first responders here, has been operating on blind luck for decades and, for too many fishermen and too many fish stocks, the crisis has only deepened. I had started to think the Council was getting better at its job but on Wednesday, the Groundfish Committee unanimously and enthusiastically reverted to form: ready, shoot, aim.

And they did so on two fronts, all the while waving the flag of virtue and “the right thing.” First, they created a management option for the Council’s consideration that invites, if not compels, the region’s groundfishermen to expand fishing operations into the region’s existing closed areas before the Council’s own scientific analysis is even completed. The alternative would allow sectors to amend their sector management plans to individually request access to the closed areas without the necessity of a full review of environmental impacts.  This is a management loophole that you could drive a pair of herring trawlers through at full speed. Second, the Groundfish committee punted the management decisions on these new openings to the federal government. I’m sorry, but the word that comes to mind is pathetic.

Mr. Bullard’s observations on his earlier tours are certainly worth considering. A number of fishermen and some critical fishing support operations like the Portland Fish Exchange are in crisis. And crisis situations sometimes present situations where the law hasn’t caught up with what is right in the moment. But far more often, they generate a situation where base motives are exploited to justify breaking the law. Those situations are called mob rule and very bad things can happen. That’s a bit of what’s happening here in my mind. There is no analysis that these openings will help those in trouble and a lot of impossibly scarce agency resources will be diverted to making things worse out on the water.

Here’s the big picture. Everyone pressing for this option wants to get into the closed areas so they can catch every single fish they are entitled to under their quotas. Without completing the required analysis of how they can minimize gear and fishing impacts on essential fish habitat, the exigencies of the moment trump all. Will some of the boats catch more haddock? Sure. Will it last for long? No. A fair number of fishermen think that the high haddock abundance estimates are a phantom, just like the high Gulf of Main cod estimates were. Is there a big haddock year class coming? Yes, but the herring fishery seems hell bent on catching it as bait and I’ve been told they caught more haddock last year than the haddock fishery did.

On top of this normal management craziness, there are a slew of new game-changing environmental factors entering the picture from climate change, pollution, and who knows what all. Productivity is down in a lot of once-reliable fish like cod and the scallop harvest now also has to be cut significantly. The owner of the New Bedford auction has publicly stated that a lot of the flounders don’t look good, don’t look healthy these days. The government says the disaster is due to “undetermined causes.”

No one trusts the population models or science; no one trusts the federal government; resources aren’t available to collect the data that everyone knows they need to be more accurate about sustainable fishing levels; people haven’t been able to catch quotas of fish they already have access to because the fish aren’t there.

So what do the managers want to do? Let everyone fish more and harder, even the boats that are already making good money. Why not just whack those closed areas so they can become as unproductive as the open areas they already have.

There are things that could be done to help the fishing operations that are highly dependent on the several species whose quotas have to be drastically cut on May 1, 2013 and they could be done rapidly if they are focused. There are some inshore fisheries on dogfish, skates, and other fish that could be expanded under current programs even into closed areas and relieve economic and ecological pressure on those struggling codfish. I could think of other options and an average fisherman could come up with five good ideas for every one of mine. Some of the fishermen who are doing well these days could even take some actions that would cut struggling inshore fishing operations and places like the Portland Fish Exchange a break.

What a pipe dream.  Better to just ignore all that legal environmental review “rigamarole” (as one Committee member put it Wednesday)—not to mention the integrity of the decadal-environmental review process—and get our boats into those areas on those fish at any cost. Don’t worry, the federal fisheries service, which hasn’t been able to process individual exemptions or experimental permits rapidly now, will make sure that everything works out OK in the end when the whole fleet shows up to get their pass into the closed areas.

Sorry, that’s just not my experience. It is hard not concluding that the New England Council with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s encouragement is once again looking at doing something that is both illegal and wrong.


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