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.


5 Responses to Talking Turkey About Fish

  • Nils Stolpe says:

    Mr. Shelley –

    Re “can anyone point to even partial successes in the groundfish fishery in New England?” there are approximately a million metric tons – that’s 2.2 billion pounds – of three species of catchable and marketable fish “available” of our Northeast (see Fishing isn’t a four letter word” at http://www.fishnet-usa.com/Fishing_not_four_letter_word.pdf).

    These three species – Acadian redfish, spiny dogfish and haddock – could sustainably support the entire out-of-work groundfish industry, and then some. What has the Conservation Law Foundation (or the mega-foundations that support it), with all of your eloquently phrased gratitude for those fishermen, done to help them to harvest any of those fish?

    Nils Stolpe

    • Les Kaufman says:

      Haddock is a fair point, but we are unable to catch only haddock: we are drawing sustenance from an ecosystem, and ecosystems are messy. Redfish and dogfish may currently be reasonable targets but they are both long-lived and late maturing: neither will sustain a very large rate of extraction, nor for very long. Also, redfish are highly habitat dependent, and re-opening the closed areas may be a recipe for redfish fricassee. We need to restore the system as a whole and then husband it as a whole…forever, not just the next year or two, our current time horizon.

  • Captain henry says:

    Its amaing how the Market Based management scheme undid in two years what conservation took a decade to acheive. In only a few short years, Catch Shares allowed large factory trawelers to decimate inshore groundfisheries, driving untold numbers of dayboaters off the water. EDF touts this scheme as a sucess….wonder what it takes to be considered a Failure? Meanwhile hundreds of millions keep getting poured in to this big corporate scheme, and fishermen and fisheries are paying the price. The stocks can and have rebounded quickly whan real, reliable, accurate and current science is used to manage with. But…..thats something that far too litle of is being used. Its really time to hold fishery managers and NOAA heads accountable for, and force them to use ONLY Reliable science to manage OUR fisheries with. Whats sadest of all is the opposition of enviromental groups, EDF and Pew included, that oppose any such science mandate!

  • Reidar Bendiksen says:

    You sound like a spoild child sitting at the dinner table with a plate of meat,potatoes and veggies, and he is making a scene because he don’t want that, he want to go straight for the Cookies and Ice cream.
    I remember back to a time when you made a trip on the F/V Odin and boxing fresh Cod was the issue not fisheries management.
    I was told then that you seemed to be a nice guy but that image has faded long ago and now with noumerous law suits and anti fishing retoric to your credit, aided by EDF and other green groups you have managed to irradicate NMFS and NOAA as well as the fishing industri. NOAA at one time had a heart before amendment 13 came in as a result of your lawsuits i may add.
    After that time NOAA has simply turned anti fishing as well, sceared to death of more lawsuits they are now leaning backwards for greenies on their councils .
    Most of the fishermen on these counsils only looks out for them selves and that any regulations past from their votes would benefit themselves. Cape Cod Hookers association is a joke, they are the only people that targets the “Endangered” Cod all year round an would just love to see the Draggers gone from their fishing spots.
    Jane Lubchenco, we all know where she came from an what agenda she brought with her and that agenda has surely not helped relations
    between Fishermen and regulators.
    Catch Shares up to now has gone exactly like most fishermen predicted and that result is that most boatowners found it more profiable to sell their quotaes rather than fish it.
    Is this scenario what you and EDF was thinking about when talking about oppertunities for the coming generations ?
    Armchair fishermen living off their quotas by collecting royalties each year and passing this on to the following generations?
    I am a former fisherman and now a gearsupplier for the fishing fleet , my experiance in fishing goes back some 50 years. I could tell you alot about how to manage the fleet and the fisheries and to actualy maintain infastucture, Jobs and markets but to get this far you have to undo this monstosity called “Catch Shares” and how you will accomplish this now is beyond me
    I also have young sons taking over the business and I hope there will continue to be a fishing industi in years to come, I am not worried the fish will be gone but the fishermen are becoming less and less experienced because there are no incentives for them anymore, they know they will never get off the deck to run a boat or own one or if they do get to own a boat, it will not have any quota so he remains on deck and eventually finds a paying job ashore somewhere. I am sorry but this present system with all the arrogant people that has no clue on anything about fisheries exept what they read on reports, magasines, newspapers and television ads, just has to go…

  • Peter Shelley (CLF) says:

    Mr. Stolpe, a paid fisheries gadfly like myself except for his lack of ties to New England, opines that redfish, spiny dogfish and haddock are successes in the groundfishery in New England that are being withheld from fishermen from the comfortable vantage point of his desktop computer in eastern Pennsylvania. [Ed. Note: Mr. Stolpe has corrected this comment and noted that he now lives in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, not Central Pennsylvania.] He points, however, to no collapsed fishery that he has influenced that has achieved his goal of sustainability. Other than being paid as a consultant for his questionable advice, most of his direct experience, if I am not mistaken, is with raising fish in pens: aquaculture.

    And Captain Henry, a regular correspondent on Talking Fish matters, has his fingers on all the region’s problems from the flybridge of his recreational business in Florida. How simple the New England world must look from that distance.

    Responding specifically to some of Mr. Stolpe’s points, dogfish are not even managed as part of the groundfish fishery in New England (the focus of the blog); everyone supports a significant increased harvest of dogfish but doing so right now would drop the prices because of the oligopoly created by the dogfish MSC certification. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of that. Redfish could be caught today but aren’t being targeted heavily yet because the markets would be flooded and prices would plummet. As for haddock, they may or may not be out there in the numbers the models currently suggest. I’ve heard fishermen argue both sides of that from what they see on the water. Managers have had a role in the haddock recovery by not overharvesting early strong year classes of haddock but had no role in producing the unpredictable frequency and strength of recent haddock year classes. Moreover, if the Council had done its job and finished the habitat amendment more than ten years ago when it was required to do, maybe fishermen could go into some portions of the existing closed areas today without controversy to see if these paper haddock are really there.

    Mr. Bendiksen has a good number of his facts wrong—I went fishing on F/V Thor, not Odin; we were fishing scallops not cod; fisheries management, not cod packing, was my purpose for going on that trip; and NOAA was just as despised then by some as now—but his basic theme seems to be that NOAA had more “heart” when it was openly allowing flagrant overfishing in the “good, old days” and that the whole system in place now should be thrown out.

    While such a course of action might satisfy Mr. Bendiksen’s apparent libertarian appetites, it would not produce more fish for his children to fish on as has been demonstrated countless times in this region and around the world. His native Norway, one of the fishery giants in the world, would be completely intolerant of overfishing as a strategy for the production of long term, healthy cod fisheries. Surprisingly, Mr. Bendiksen is also against the catch share program, although such “market-based” approaches are the indispensible first condition of many of the conservative thinkers that I know Mr. Bendiksen promotes.

    Richard Gaines, that dogged scourge of fisheries conspiracies at the Gloucester Daily Times, seems to have taken the pieces from my blog that serve his obsessive hunt to uncover the mythical plot by “greenies” to shut down all fisheries, but omitted any mention of a central actor in my blog, which is the New England Fishery Management Council. If the Council won’t hold itself accountable for better results—a responsibility that the state fishery directors on the council should uniquely bear as the institutional memory of the body—and ostensibly diligent reporters like Mr. Gaines won’t hold the Council accountable for results because such scrutiny doesn’t fit into his pre-existing narrative, then the “emergency” groundfishing disaster may well not only become permanent but contagious.

    Finally, some have taken issue with my linkage between private corporate behavior and public resource management of so-called “common pool resources.” While it is not clear form the commentary whether the private property advocates or the public property advocates were more offended by my point of comparison, suffice it to say that I believe that there is no question that the challenges of managing public property are significantly greater than managing private property. I see no logical or policy reason, however, why there should be different standards of accountability to the “shareholders” in the two situations.

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