Opening the Closed Areas – A bet we can’t afford to take?

A map of the New England groundfish closures. NOAA is considering action to open areas in orange that do not overlap with shaded areas to commercial fishing. Map Credit: NOAA Information Sheet

On Thursday, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) will meet for the first time since the Secretary of Commerce declared the New England groundfish fishery, which includes species such as cod, haddock, and flounder, a disaster. This disaster declaration was made after scientific assessments of the fisheries called for drastic reductions in catch limits in response to the unforeseen dramatic decline of some of the region’s most important fish populations. It is still uncertain what this declaration will mean for the industry, but regardless of what comes from Congress, the next few years are going to be incredibly difficult for those who make a living fishing.  In response, the NEFMC is working on ways to increase revenue and reduce costs for the industry. One of the ideas currently being discussed is opening groundfish closed areas to commercial fishing—a proposition that might make sense for the offshore areas on Georges Bank but could be the final straw causing the collapse of the fisheries in the Gulf of Maine.

The leading rationale for opening these protected areas is that the industry is now operating under a catch based management system, and effort controls are no longer needed. In other words, as long as industry does not catch more pounds of fish than determined by the science, the fish stocks are fine, and it shouldn’t matter where those fish are caught. While this argument makes intuitive sense and the basic premise is correct, the big assumption is that we have accurate science for determining these catch limits and a rigorous system of monitoring to ensure that they are adhered to. Before we risk the future of our fishery by opening the closed areas of the Gulf of Maine, Council members and fishermen in the region should ask themselves if they trust the accuracy of stock assessments and the accountability for catch limits. Are they willing to go “all in” with this plan, when there is uncertainty regarding the economic and environmental benefits vs. costs over the next two years from opening the closed areas?

A second rationale for looking to open the closed areas in the face of disaster is that the closed areas are where the limited fish in the ocean are living. The majority of the industry in response to this crisis has claimed “we need more allocation.” But looking at catch this current fishing year, one can argue that there is plenty of allocation (pounds of fish to catch) available, there just are not enough fish in the ocean.  Currently, only one species has over 30% of its allocation caught throughout all of New England. At a time when people are looking for work and ways to make money, this scenario raises some serious questions about the status of groundfish stocks. Opening up the closed areas in the Gulf of Maine might be a way to increase catch for the short-term, but they also might be the last buffer protecting some of our most important species if the catch limits are not accurate.

Four years ago the Gulf of Maine Cod stock assessment returned with good news showing that cod had a rebounding population and that fishermen could target that species. The current assessment, a short three years later, proposed cuts in catch upwards of 90%. I’m no scientist, but with swings that severe it doesn’t sound like the most reliable process. If we could trust that the assessments were accurate, opening up mortality closures would be a logical step to take, instead we should reflect upon what would have happened over that same time period if fishing had fishermen been allowed in the closed areas. There might not be a cod left in the Gulf of Maine.

The reaction of the New England Fishery Management Council and NMFS to this crisis will determine the future of the New England Groundfish fishery and the many communities of fishermen who rely on this resource. Where there is reliable scientific data indicating robust stocks, perhaps the consideration of opening closed areas makes sense. Saving Seafood recently outline a compelling case as to how regulations could be changed (including opening up closed areas on Georges Bank) to allow the offshore fleet to target haddock. These recommendations included full retention to ensure accountability for the fleet while also benefiting the bottom line.  However, where science is questionable—or there are numerous stocks that would be put at risk, such as in the closed areas in the Gulf of Maine—we should hedge our bets and keep these effort controls in place until there are catch limits we can trust.

I don’t feel comfortable moving all our chips to the center of the table on this bet and I sure hope the Council doesn’t either.

Ben Martens
Executive Director
Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association


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