Talking Turkey About Fish

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

I was talking recently with a senior federal fishery official about the continued (and now declared) “disaster” that is the New England groundfish fishery. He looked at me squarely and said, “We were so close, weren’t we? We were so close!” I know what he meant: the air of optimism and relief that accompanied the creation of the sector system two years ago, the “end of overfishing” in New England, and the predictions that many stocks were rebuilding to high levels had presaged a new and better future. Any optimism is now gone, and in hindsight it seems ridiculous. The fox is not only guarding the chicken house; he is systematically demolishing it.

The federal fishery management system in this country is a unique exercise in natural resource management. No one could ever imagine forest management plans being forced on federal  experts by forestry companies. No one could imagine turning the planning of the future of this country’s vast range lands over to cattlemen. And few people would argue that the oil and gas industry should be in charge of planning decisions about oil and gas development on public lands.

And yet, in fisheries management, that is what Congress has done by turning the health and prosperity of this nation’s once abundant fish resources over to the fishermen and their representatives in state fishery agencies. The fishery council management system may have been a “noble experiment”, but it has been an abject failure for the groundfish and for fishermen of New England.

Can anyone point to even partial successes in the groundfish fishery in New England? The managers not only drove the populations of cod and haddock into the ground by the mid-1990’s, but also failed to recognize the fact that they had done so for years. Even then, they didn’t have the stomach to set catch limits at the low levels that the law and common sense dictated until federal judges ordered them to. And even then, they adopted the riskiest strategy they could get away with.

Hundreds of small coastal fishing businesses, who only caught small quantities of the total catch and were hardly responsible for the high groundfish mortalities, were driven out of business or into other fisheries. Millions of our scarce tax dollars have gone toward futile efforts to subsidize a broken system. Now, over thirty-five years after the federal fishery law requiring sustainable fish harvests went into effect, cod, flounder, and other species continue to struggle to survive, let alone rebound.

So now what do these managers want to do? They want to open up more areas to fishing, even though they only have a vague sense of the benefits those closed areas are providing to fish. The resource sharing agreements with Canada cramping this expanded harvest? To hell with the Canadians. Now they are charging their science advisors, who are supposed to provide objective science advice, with developing rationales for continuing to fish at high mortality levels. The science models for some of these species are now so rotten that the scientists can’t seem to figure out whether some stocks are fully rebuilt or completely overfished.

Who is to blame for this management chaos? The New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service. If we were talking about a private corporation, these managers would have been fired decades ago and then fired again and again until they started to perform by growing biomass, increasing profitability, and improving access to the healthy fish stocks across the region. What kind of business can expect to stay in business by running through its inventory faster than it can replace it?

There is no accountability for this crowd: not in producing and maintaining healthy fish populations, and not in producing prosperous regional fishing businesses. State fishery directors and council members publicly wring their hands, point their fingers at just about everybody except themselves, commit to doing better on the next amendment, and then just go on doing the same lousy job.

This Thanksgiving, I want to give an overdue thanks to the region’s remaining fishermen who brave the elements and bring my family fish and seafood products to eat. All of us have failed to provide you with a rational, predictable and equitable business environment in which to nourish your hopes of being part of the American dream. The system has failed you and will continue to fail you as long as it continues to give each of you what you individually demand. The marine system off New England is sick and needs to be given time and space to rebuild its strength.

Over the years I have been involved in this fishery, many of you have said in disgust that the fishery should just be closed down for a while. It is too bad no one heard you.


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