New England Fisheries

NOAA Reports Aren’t All Doom and Gloom

United States fisheries generated $199 billion in sales impacts in 2012. Image credit: NOAA

On Tuesday, NOAA released two annual reports on the status of our nation’s fisheries—Fisheries Economics of the U.S. 2012 and Status of Stocks 2013.

These reports, for the most part, tell a pretty positive picture of United States fisheries and federal management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Nationally, revenues have increased 9.2% in real terms since 2003, while landings have increased 1.4%. Other economic indicators, including seafood industry job, incomes, and sales, have all increased steadily since 2009.

New England fisheries appear particularly lucrative. Massachusetts is second in the nation in terms of seafood industry jobs and 4th in terms of sales generated, and New England trails only the North Pacific in terms of revenues. In real terms, New England’s fishing revenues have risen 24% since 2009 and 8.1% since 2011.

On a national level, the status of our fish stocks has continued to improve, too. Two stocks, Sacramento River Fall Chinook Salmon and Southern Atlantic black sea bass, were declared rebuilt in 2013. Seven stocks were removed from the overfishing list and four from the overfished list.

So, with all of this good news, why have the Gloucester Daily Times and the New Bedford Standard-Times said these reports “show [a] grim picture” with “good news…hard to come by?” Well, both papers point to recent drops in landings and revenues from groundfish in New England.

It’s true that groundfish landings and revenues are falling—particularly from cod and haddock, as shown in the NOAA report. Groundfish landings fell by about 10 million pounds between 2011 and 2012, and groundfish revenues fell by about $11 million (in 2010 dollars).

New England is worst in the nation in terms of overfished stocks.

There is one simple explanation for why groundfish landings and revenues continue to fall. Although the status of stocks continues to improve on a national level, New England’s groundfish fishery remains the national poster child for overfishing. New England has twelve stocks on the overfished list and nine on the overfishing list—far more than any other region. Nearly all of these are groundfish stocks so any fishing operation that failed to see or admit to this relentless decline in groundfish and diversify in the early 2000s is either over or teetering on the cliff. For two years in a row, New England’s fishermen failed to even catch the quotas they were allowed to catch, likely a result of the fact that the science models are continuing to overestimate how many fish are actually out in the water. Bottom line, New England will continue to struggle to catch fish and earn money from the groundfish fishery until these stocks are rebuilt.

Still, all these regional doom and gloom reports at a broader level are simply unfounded, even for fishermen who have historically landed groundfish. While landings and revenues from groundfish have fallen, landings and revenues for groundfish fishermen from all species haven’t—in fact, groundfish permit holders made about $20 million more in 2012 than they did the year before (in 2010 dollars). Some New England groundfishermen are making pretty good money and a few are likely making a lot of money.

So, we’re left with a few lessons to take away from these reports. First, management plans can be successful in rebuilding our fish stocks if the catch rates are lowering to proper levels. Second, fishermen will continue to lose revenue from groundfish until we can rebuild these stocks to healthy and sustainable levels—and with New England leading the nation in overfishing, we can’t do this soon enough. Third, federal managers should be making sure that all fishermen are being provided equal and equitable access to some of these hugely profitable non-groundfish fisheries.

Lastly, diversifying our fisheries has helped to ensure their health and stability and would be buttressed by more rebuilt groundfish populations. This is probably more important now than ever, as some 68% of fishing revenues in New England are from lobsters and sea scallops—species likely to be particularly biologically vulnerable to sea water temperature shifts and ocean acidification.


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