WASHINGTON – As Congress prepares to revisit the law governing how U.S. fishermen ply their trade, New England’s beleaguered groundfish industry illustrates the challenge of reviving a historic fishery in the face of climate change and other factors.

For some, the industry’s struggle to survive is cited as proof that current federal fisheries regulations are too rigid to respond to unique circumstances. But for others, the regulations are seen as the type of strong, science-based management that should have been in place decades ago.

“I’m not happy that we’ve been doing this since 1976 and we are in no better shape than we were. We’re worse, actually,” said Glen Libby, a Port Clyde fisherman and co-op president who supports the sharp reductions in the catch that fisheries managers put into effect this month. “People are not happy with the cuts, … but if we take the cuts and three years from now we have more fish in the water, then we did the right thing.”

“I think the most important thing is building more flexibility” into the law, said Terry Alexander, a Harpswell fisherman and member of the New England Fishery Management Council, which sets catch limits on species. “The arbitrary, 10-year rebuilding time frame is not realistic for us.”

Those perspectives and many others were represented Tuesday at a conference in Washington, D.C., attended by regulators and fishermen from across the nation. The big topic involved possible changes to the landmark 1976 legislation governing commercial fishing.

Known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law created the eight regional councils that oversee offshore fishing. The law was significantly strengthened in 2007 to require that commissions base management decisions on scientific recommendations that protect fisheries. The act expires on Sept. 30, so congressional committees have begun the reauthorization process.

Speaker after speaker as well as many individual attendees of Tuesday’s conference identified climate change as the biggest single impediment to regional fishery management across the nation. As waters warm, fish move into new areas or struggle to survive.

Eric Schwaab, acting assistant secretary for conservation and management at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the gathering that NOAA’s most recent stock assessment report to Congress illustrates that the stronger law is working.

Between 2011 and 2012, 14 fish stocks were removed from either NOAA’s “overfished” or “overfishing” lists, meaning 90 percent of stocks nationwide were “not subject to overfishing.” Six stocks were declared as “rebuilt” during that time, including northern New England’s Acadian redfish.

But Schwaab also acknowledged that many areas of the country have been hit hard by the reduced catch limits required to allow fish populations to stabilize and eventually rebuild.

“The start of a new groundfish season just last week in New England again brought these challenges into sharp focus,” Schwaab said. “We’ve had to implement strict catch limits for the 2013 fishing year for several key groundfish stocks that, despite the best efforts of all involved, have not responded in the way that we all expected.”

New England’s groundfishery offers a snapshot of the challenges of fishery management.

Just 40 to 45 vessels were active in Maine’s groundfish industry in 2011, compared to as many as 350 vessels in 1990. The total value for all groundfish landed in Maine in 2011 was just $5.7 million, compared with a lobster catch valued at $334.6 million.

Assessments just a few years ago estimated that — thanks to already stringent catch limits — the stocks for Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine would be rebuilt by 2014. But more recent population surveys and research indicated that the stocks were actually in dire shape.

The resulting 78 percent reduction in the catch limit for Gulf of Maine cod has elicited mixed reactions from the fishing community. Some fishermen have said NOAA’s abrupt reversal supports their skepticism about the science underlying management decisions. They are asking for more “flexibility.”

Vincent Balzano, a Saco fisherman who serves on the New England Fishery Management Council, said the “rigid” mandatory standards laid out for managing stocks under the law mean the decision was pretty much made for the council before it even voted. That said, Balzano said he hadn’t made up his mind exactly what type of changes to the law he would support.

Others, such as the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, see the catch reductions as painful but necessary. They caution against adding too much flexibility to Magnuson-Stevens, saying that might weaken the scientific principles that guide decisions.

Libby, the Port Clyde fisherman who helped found the fishermen’s association, said he supports flexibility that will allow fishermen to become more efficient or help them weather the cuts.

“But it doesn’t mean handing out more fish when they aren’t there to begin with,” Libby said.

A Gulf of Maine Research Institute report released Tuesday described the fishery as being “in crisis” due to a combination of factors. Among the most suspect are warming waters due to climate change, less abundant forage fish for cod to eat and an oceanic ecosystem very different from that of several decades ago.

“Overall, the Gulf of Maine cod stock remains at very low levels, and the picture is not merely of a stock that has been overfished, but one that is performing poorly, threatening the viability of the fishery,” the report said.

The adequacy of the science that guides decisions on how many fish can be caught, where and by whom has always been a source of contention. Interest groups opposed to a management strategy — whether fishermen or those pushing for severe conservationist measures — almost inevitably criticize the research as being too flimsy or incomplete. Supporters, meanwhile, uphold it as sound science.

The 2007 reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens sought to address that dynamic by requiring that all eight regional management councils establish multidisciplinary “scientific and statistical” committees to offer recommendations on catch and bycatch limits, fishing practices and ecological issues. In the case of catch limits, the law prohibits councils from going beyond those recommendations.

The changes, according to a report released this week by the Ocean Conservancy and Pew Charitable Trusts, have improved decision-making and accountability, resulting in stronger and more effective management practices.

“By requiring councils to maintain science committees and to set catch limits based on their recommendations, these reforms help address past problems caused when councils disregarded or downplayed scientic advice,” the groups wrote in their largely positive review of Magnuson-Stevens.

 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC