Same Old, Same Old

The NRC report showed that rebuilding plans have helped many stocks recover when mortality is reduced effectively. Credit: NRC/NAS

It is always interesting but rarely informative to read the often whining editorial opinions that emanate from the nation’s richest fishing port, New Bedford. The recent column, “Don’t take NOAA for an answer” (New Bedford Standard Times, October 28, 2013), is no exception.

Why former Congressman Frank—the reigning political champion for the chronic overfishing that led to the loss of so many groundfishing jobs and fish product in the region—would find anything to “gloat” about from a report that supports fishery management actions in New England that he routinely opposed and that fundamentally blesses a fishery law that he voted against is beyond my ken.

The report, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Fish Stock Rebuilding Plans in the United States,” was prepared for the National Research Council by an eminent international panel of fisheries experts. It is a good read and an important document. But you have to actually read it, not just grab talking points that suit pre-existing opinions or biases. The report actually reaches none of the conclusions claimed for it by the Standard Times column.

Such as the claim in that same Standard Times column that “the Gloucester fishery [is] almost extinct with people’s homes lost and lives in ruin.” While homes have sadly been lost and lives have been ruined by historic fisheries mismanagement and overfishing, the Gloucester fishery is hardly extinct. In fact, from 1996 when the federal managers finally started to curb overfishing on cod and haddock—and only after a lawsuit—gross revenues in fish and shellfish landed in Gloucester have gone from $33 million to $54 million in
2012 (constant 2010 dollars).  Clearly, more than a few people are making money from fish in Gloucester.

Back to the NRC report. There is a great deal of food for thought in the careful recommendations presented by the science panel after its review of U.S. fisheries over the last 20 years but one of the report’s core findings—“that there are only a few stocks for which biomass did not increase when fishing mortality was effectively reduced” (emphasis added)—certainly matches up with our experience in New England, where rebuilding of cod and others was likely delayed by a failure to effectively reduce mortalities until relatively recently.

There are other compelling take-aways in the report for New England’s fisheries. Sea temperature increases and ocean acidification associated with carbon emissions are already altering many aspects of our ocean’s health. Keeping our regional fisheries healthy in the face of these obvious climate impacts will likely require a combination of precautionary resource management actions, improved science and data, consistent funding, and political leadership.

As far as the 10-year rebuilding requirement in Magnuson-Stevens or the use of the mixed stock exception are concerned, the NRC report pointed out various problems—discontinuities—but also benefits associated with having such a specific time frame. The authors also pointed out that most stocks studied rebuilt within 5 to 13 years when overfishing was stopped and when the target mortality rate was quickly achieved.

The analysis of the mixed stock exception focused on the potential problem where a very low value overfished stock was preventing harvest of a high value healthy stock. That is not the problem with mixed stocks in New England where the overfished species at issue are icons in the fishery like cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder. Both of these issues will and should receive scrutiny when the National Standard 1 Guidelines are debated again.

While I get nervous with the report’s proposed answer to the limitations, flaws and uncertainties inherent in existing fishery management models of even more complex and assumption-driven models, the future does require a shift from single-species stock management to ecosystem-based fishery management. Even the report authors refer to these new models candidly as “‘best guesses’ whose performance and skill are uncertain.” But there is no doubt that we need a better way forward. Readers should note the authors’ conclusion: the goal of changing any of the current fishery’s law should be to find “ways of increasing efficiency without weakening the rebuilding mandate.” Maintaining an end to overfishing is a great start towards a healthier ocean and healthier fisheries.


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