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.


6 Responses to The New England Fishery Mismanagement Council

  • Doug Maxfield says:

    IT IS NOT A PUBLIC RESOURCE! Your precious sector management has made that perfectly clear. The Resouce belongs to those lucky enough to have fished hard during a time when the fish needed a break. And stop acting like a snivelling litte wet noodle. For Christ’s sake, you fools stood on your soapboxes claiming that overfishing had been ended…everything was going to be on it’s way up. The fact of the matter is that all of your models and predictions are useless. Always have been. You want to talk about trends at the coucil meetings? Take a look at what happens without daily limits on fish. There…done.

    • Peter Shelley (CLF) says:

      Mr. Maxfield’s first argument, at least, calls for a response. He shouts that our oceans are not a public resource because of the new catch share program that assigns harvest rights to different fishermen based on their fishing history. Mr. Maxfield confuses the management of the fishery with the ownership and control of the fish themselves. The fish, at least until a fisherman has them on board, are most definitely a public resource. Despite the fact that national oceans, like national parks, western range lands, and national forests, are managed to limit access and use, they are not a private resource. The only difference with fishermen’s use of the resource is that they do not pay any fees to the public for their catches–unlike, say, foresters, who pay by the board-foot for the trees they remove. Perhaps now is a good time to reconsider that free rider policy to pay for the improved science and monitoring that is needed so badly.

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  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    So – this whiole post never reports that the Chair ruled the “blatantly illegal motion” out of order? Why is that?

    “The Fishery Council in New England is not currently adding any value to groundfish management; they are just making matters worse.”

    An interesting comment from someone who argued the exact opposite less than two years ago during the Amendment 16 lawsuit.

    To quote your recent post: “As the Court concluded: “the record demonstrates that the [National Marine Fisheries Service] engaged in reasoned decision-making and reached rational outcomes to hard choices.” That is what good fisheries management is all about. It’s never easy and there are always winners and losers, but decisions have to be made.”

    Sounds to me like you may just be a sore loser. And it is not even clear you have lost yet.

    • Talking Fish says:

      Mr. Bigelow: Peter Shelley’s argument in this piece is certainly not inconsistent with his post on the Amendment 16 lawsuit. He absolutely has praised the leadership of the Council and the Agency in the careful development of that measure, but several years have passed since that action. We at Talking Fish certainly understand that difficult decisions must be made in fisheries management, and, as Peter Shelley’s post mentioned, there will be winners and losers. In its most recent meeting, though, the NEFMC didn’t make difficult decisions—it just didn’t make any substantive decisions at all. Placing the responsibility for action on closed areas on NOAA and postponing tough choices on catch limits isn’t managing the resource; it’s avoiding the issues and shirking leadership.

      With regards to the illegal 10% blanket cut motion being called out of order, we mention that action in this post, with all necessary respect to Rip Cunningham’s actions: https://www.talkingfish.org/in-the-news/fish-talk-in-the-news-friday-december-21

      But it’s hard to ignore the Council’s pattern of consistently choosing the riskiest catch levels. Just in November, the Council approved a 1, 150 mt limit for yellowtail flounder that puts the Canadian resource sharing agreement at risk and pushes the limits of the Science and Statistical Committee’s recommendations. According to John Bullard, that limit may well be denied by NOAA. The Council is also considering introducing interim measures that would postpone making necessary cuts on cod and other species for another year, despite scientific advice. Always choosing the riskiest route is simply not a sustainable precedent for the Council to set.

  • Thaddeus Bigelow says:

    “They continue to overwhelmingly and almost unanimously pick the most risky catch levels they can legally select and even propose illegal levels.”

    Balderdash. Can you give even a single example of this? Has the Council, since Amendment 16, forwarded a single groundfish catch level recommendation to NMFS that exceeded the ABC set by the SSC? Has there been a single catch level disapproved by NMFS or the courts since A13 because it was illegal?

    And don’t point to a Committee motion that was ruled out of order at the Council as your example. That is not a Council recommendation.

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