The New England Fishery Mismanagement Council

Atlantic cod. (Photo credit: Joachim Muller)

December 20th’s Council meeting in Wakefield, MA, was another excruciating chapter in the tragedy of New England groundfish management. Too many emotional people packed in too small of a space, a meeting formatted for public comments in a way that practically invited generalized invective, and not enough fish to allocate to too many hard-strapped fishermen. Actually, it wasn’t so much another chapter as it was a sorry repetition of any number of angry fishery meetings that I have gone to since 1991, right down to the same fishermen saying they were being driven out of business.

You’d think everyone would get tired of it all at some point and fix the mess. But it just seems to get worse. One of the blatantly illegal motions scheduled to come to the floor last week from the groundfish committee limited any catch reductions to no more than 10% regardless of the scientific advice. That prospect led me to publicly remind the council members that they had each sworn an oath of office that committed them to upholding the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act. Many in the audience took great offense at such a modest proposition.

Make no mistake, though—the ecological chaos will only get worse. On top of the centuries of overfishing and heavy harvest that has removed most of the large predators from the system—the whales, the sharks, the halibut, the largest female fish of all commercial species—while at the same time re-engineering the ocean floor with the incessant sweep of mobile fishing gears (one fisherman at the meeting perhaps jokingly stated that he had personally lowered the ocean floor several feet in some areas that he dragged heavily), the system is now adjusting to climate change effects.

The impacts of climate change would be profound even without an overfished, gear-scoured ocean as a baseline. Ocean acidification is damaging larval stages of fish and interfering with all stages of shell production from zooplankton to oysters; sea temperature is rising dramatically and those temperature fluxes will alter everything from the reproduction cycles and patterns of fish to the presence of fish like Atlantic cod that are already at the southern edge of their range; increased precipitation is apparently causing order of magnitude changes in plankton abundance which are at the base of this once-productive ecosystem; and the potential ecosystem shifts if the Gulf Stream shifts or other large scale ecological changes occur are almost beyond imagination.

To make matters even worse, our scientific gauges seem to be malfunctioning with disconcerting regularity. More and more of the fishery production models are proving to be wrong in their predictions, either overestimating or underestimating abundance. Other models for single species can’t conclusively establish whether some stocks of fish are either fully rebuilt or severely overfished. Confidence in the fishery management system and our understanding of what is happening out in the water seem to be at all time lows.

The response to all of this ecological uncertainty and economic risk from the people who have been appointed to care for the public’s interests in this vital natural resource system, the New England Fishery Management Council, is to ignore precaution and disregard any science that they don’t like. They continue to overwhelmingly and almost unanimously pick the most risky catch levels they can legally select and even propose illegal levels; they are searching for legal loopholes that might allow more overfishing on the already severely overharvested stocks; and they open closed areas to commercial fishing just as these refuges are starting to show positive signs of productivity benefits. And they do virtually nothing to improve the data collection, monitoring, or analysis that might shed more light on real conditions in the ocean.

This is not management; it is mismanagement. The New England Council has shown little capacity to lead on tough issues before climate change started to change all the ecological ground rules. Why would anyone in their right mind even imagine they will do any better in a post-climate change world?

Notwithstanding the mob scene in Wakefield, MA last week, this is not the fishermen’s resource; these are not the fishermen’s fish. This is the public’s resource: yours and mine. It is understandable that fishermen were angry at the meeting because their business world is a mess and getting worse. But conservationists and the general public should be getting just as angry, because their public resources are being plundered and pillaged while no one is being held accountable. If these managers can’t or won’t step up to the plate to make the resource better, it is time to take it away from them. The Fishery Council in New England is not currently adding any value to groundfish management; they are just making matters worse.


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