New England Fisheries
The Question Not Asked
On January 5th, Senators Markey and Warren sent a set of questions to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concerning Atlantic cod. The letter credits the views of various unspecified “stakeholders” who challenge the actions of NOAA, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center last summer and fall when they decided to conduct an unscheduled update of the Gulf of Maine cod assessment on the basis of startling new survey data. Subsequently, at the Council’s request, NOAA took emergency action imposing strict management measures designed to reduce overfishing of cod in a belated effort to slow further declines in the stock.
The ends identified by Senators Markey and Warren—basing fisheries management on the best available science in a transparent and inclusive process—are unassailable. Fighting to protect the interests of constituents and advancing good public policy is what good Senators do. And we have good Senators.
But, an underlying premise of the letter– that fishing stakeholders lack access to the decision making processes in New England or that NOAA has been less than responsive to fishing interests in this or other decisions—certainly does not resonate with my experience.
Of greatest concern, perhaps, is that their letter will divert scarce federal agency resources to answering questions about a federal action that is now months old and that may probably turn out to be too little too late for cod.
Paraphrasing the Senators’ questions for purposes of space and simplification, here’s how I would answer them:
Q: Why did NOAA do the unscheduled assessment and why weren’t fishermen involved directly in the assessment process while it was being performed?
A: Because NOAA scientists discovered that Atlantic cod were crashing and might be in an unrecoverable depensating mode unless something effective was done to stop decades of overfishing. I am imagining, as I would have, they thought it was probably a good idea to let managers know what they had found out as soon as possible. As far as I know, stakeholders—whether fishing industry reps or conservationists—were not and never are involved in the scientific assessment process itself, and that’s probably a good thing. The fishing community was fully included in every subsequent aspect of the cod update, including providing completely un-reviewed information of what they felt their minimum unavoidable bycatch of cod might be that was used in fashioning the management response.
Q: Has NOAA learned anything from this process that it will build into future stock assessment update protocols?
A: My lesson from this would be that certain fishing interests interested only in the short term will always assail the federal fisheries scientists regardless of what, how, or when the science is done unless the scientists are recommending increased fishing pressures. Accordingly, the lesson for me would be that they should just keep doing their job as best they can with their limited funding and continue to keep the managers informed of new stock developments as quickly as they can come to a scientifically-based decision, whether positive or negative. Providing funding or requiring industry funding of annual assessments of all stocks would be a step in the right direction for Congress.
Q: What about the “concerns” heard about the lack of justification for the closed areas for spawning protection and the 200 pound trip limits?
A: Hard to know exactly what those concerns were all about frankly. The fishermen who testified to the Council were all over the map on what was going on with cod. The spawning closure recommendations are all based primarily on work that the New England Council’s own Closed Area Technical Team developed previously over months in an open process in which fishermen participated extensively. And yes, Senators, the trip limits really are an ill-advised management idea particularly without any observers on board the boats — really just a license to kill and throw away precious codfish so one can land other fish. NOAA should have gone with full retention of the catch as many recommended or should have closed even larger areas to groundfish-catching-capable gears.
Q: Did NOAA try to minimize the impacts of this action on other healthy fisheries like redfish and dogfish?
A: Senators, I respectfully think you are missing the point. Unless the collapse of Gulf of Maine cod is stopped, large parts of the whole Gulf of Maine and all its fisheries, including a fairly important lobster fishery which may trap significant numbers of cod as bycatch, are at substantial risk. Think what a threatened species listing would do. NOAA should take whatever short term actions possible to try to prevent that from happening.
Q: Shouldn’t NOAA be supporting market diversification or increasing investments in groundfish observers and monitoring?
A: That’s a really good question, Senators. Congress did not direct any of the $30 million that taxpayers just sent to New England last year for the “groundfish” disaster toward prevention of a reoccurrence or deepening of the root causes of the disaster. Since NOAA largely deferred as well to the states and their fishermen to decide how to spend their disaster money—a stance some in Congress no doubt encouraged–perhaps Massachusetts, not NOAA, should be answering your question why a big chunk of the groundfish emergency money isn’t going directly toward removing barriers to market diversification or accelerating observers/electronic monitoring research and development.
Q: And here’s an important question the Senators did not ask that I wished they had: how in the world is it possible that nearly every year since a major federal law governing the management of the public’s ocean was passed in 1976 to “prevent overfishing” the New England Fishery Management Council and NOAA have allowed overfishing on Atlantic cod to continue, including last year when fishing was apparently still six to seven times the overfishing rate?
A: I have to admit that I am still stumped by that one.