The Broken System

Managers must take action to save New England's cod population. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/New England Ocean Odyssey

Tony Austin is a commercial fisherman who grew up in Wellfleet, MA and currently lives in North Carolina.

The present politically based implementation of the Magnuson Act guarantees the death of commercial fishing on the east coast of the U.S. Allowing fishermen a major voice in the councils has led to the current scarcity of cod and haddock in New England. Every single piece of stock assessment data indicates that stocks of these two species are in dire straits, yet fishermen complain that NMFS is destroying their living by not letting them catch more of these fish. That Canada shut down its fisheries in the ’90s seems to have had no impact on American fishermen whose stocks of Cod are now in worse shape than Canada’s were when its fisheries were closed.

Quite simply, the United States has too many fishermen and not enough fish. When the Magnuson act was passed in 1976, forcing massive foreign fleets to leave the productive bottom off Georges Bank, the U.S. Government promptly instituted low-interest construction loans for American fishermen. We continued the industrial fishing, though on a smaller scale, that the foreign boats had pursued.  The tub-trawl hook fisheries that had characterized US efforts for 400 years were gradually supplanted by draggers that destroyed the bottom, leaving unturned no stone beneath which juvenile fish could have found protection. Gill nets off New England, set and abandoned by fishermen with the onset of bad weather, caught everything that came their way, and the catch drowned or was eaten by sand fleas before fishermen could retrieve their nets. These kinds of fishing, aided by position finding equipment that gradually increased in accuracy and ease of operation, quickly decimated the very stocks of fish the Magnuson Act was designed to protect.  Now New England fishermen are complaining that they want help from the government because the fisheries are a disaster. This is a disaster they made for themselves, not a natural disaster like a hurricane or a tsunami.  Dragging and gill netting should be stopped immediately if the stocks are ever to have a chance of recovering.

As recently as 25 years ago I could jig over 1000 lb. of Cod (gutted weight) a day. Those fish are gone and nobody can make a living with a jig any more. New Englanders are fishing for what we used to call trash fish: dogfish, skates, and goosefish (anglerfish). Congress needs to give NMFS the authority to close the fisheries, and individual congressmen who, at the urging of a few of their constituents, persist in chivying NMFS should desist. They don’t know what the fisheries should look like, nor do their aides. I know what they looked like in the late forties and the fifties, and fisheries like that are gone. What few cod are caught exhibit signs of starvation.  Neither cod nor haddock grow to the sizes they used to attain. A New England fisherman working in anything other than the scallop or lobster fisheries is probably unable to make ends meet.

The present fishery management council system dictated by the Magnuson Act is an appalling failure. The 1977 publication of Distant Water by William Warner was a serious warning, largely ignored by the fishing industry and certainly unknown to our government. Soon after Warner’s warning to the world, with the passage of Magnuson, the government instated a doomed-to-failure council system wherein the fox controls the hen house. What should be purely scientific decisions have been taken out of the hands of the scientists and assigned to political appointees, a typical bureaucratic mess. The system has to be reactive to save fish stocks, but is so unwieldy it’s unable to respond to simple problems in less than a year and a half or so, while council staff, stock assessment personnel, and council members jump through the required hoops.  What it boils down to is this: unless the cod and haddock fisheries in New England are shut down now, there’s no chance they will ever recover. Canadian cod have been under moratorium since 1992 and completely shut down since 2003 and have not recovered. It’s shameful that we still have draggers and gill netters trying to catch cod and haddock. Either congress takes steps to shut the fisheries down or they are gone forever. Never mind the obscene bickering in the New England Council. It’s meaningless.

National Marine Fisheries Service lacks leadership at upper levels and sits idly by while the (mis)managed system continues to be hijacked by politics. Regional Administrators in the East seem responsible to no one and each region is treated by its Administrator like a fiefdom. What happened to the cod in the Northeast is only a precursor of what’s happening to fish stocks in the Southeast, where there is little or no enforcement of regulations and the Regional Administrator has enabled fishermen by acceding to their demands. The fishermen should not be running the show – the Northeast proved that. The Councils should have no control over science nor should the Administrator claim publicly that it is flawed. Scientists and trained managers should have the last say, not a group of political appointees. Having attended Southeast Fisheries Management Council meetings for over 20 years I can state categorically that had it not been for the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act that mandated an end to over fishing and took the first step toward removing politics from the equation there wouldn’t be much of a population of reef fish left. The Council consistently refused to take remedial action to end overfishing until Magnuson was reauthorized. Most SAFMC members don’t realize that they’re supposed to advocate for the fish, not for the fishermen. They system is deeply flawed. Regional Administrators are supposed to make decisions, not curry popularity with fishermen.

An instance is the existence of over 600 commercial fishing permits in the South Atlantic. The SAFMC has refused to set a limit, having gone with a two for one system that’s reduced the number of permits from around 1500 to its present excessive state. The latent permits that are not fished should be voided; 200 commercial permits in the South Atlantic is a more realistic figure and is still more commercial effort than the reef fish population can sustain. If permit holder has not continuously fished his permit for the past 20 years his permit should be revoked.

This is all in the presence of an ever-growing swarm of largely unrestricted recreational fishermen. These recreational fishermen try to pass themselves off as conservation minded because they only harvest a few fish on any given day. However they fail to see the problem in its entirety. A single day of fishing is multiplied by the growing millions of recreational anglers with increasing access to cheaper and more powerful navigation equipment. The fish don’t stand a chance. Human population in the Southeast is growing faster than in any part of the country.

The ludicrous degree to which the Regional Fisheries Councils will go to kowtow to the fishing community is exemplified by the case of red snapper whose stock is estimated to be at less than 5% of historic levels; yet the council sees fit to allow continued harvest. The harvest being allowed is so ridiculously low that the season is limited to six days and even that yield exceeds the levels recommended by scientists.

The decimation of our nation’s valuable fishery resources continues sight unseen and goes unnoticed by the non-fishing public. What happens beneath the waves, stays beneath the waves. Ask a person from Iowa about the plight of the cod and red snapper and you’ll likely get a blank stare (no offense to Iowans). Try to explain it to them and you’ll likely just get a confused look, because we don’t have a picture like the clear cut forest or the acres of buffalo carcasses as glaring proof. The destruction is largely hidden, leaving a war of words and numbers, consumed by the hellish system of politics characteristic of the Council System.


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