March 10, 2010

Finally, an effort to save fishermen as well as fish

— So much of the work around the commercial fishing industry in the last decade has been about saving fish. It's about time someone is focusing attention on saving fishermen.

But that's what's happening. Three non-profit groups announced last week that they are working with state and federal regulators to purchase fishing rights, which they will share with local fishermen who help study and rebuild fish populations.

In addition, the groups will also help pay for fuel and other expenses in an attempt to improve conservation efforts as well as keeping fishermen in business.

It is right that regulators focus on restoration. Years of over-fishing have resulted in dangerous declines of some species, requiring a dramatic response. If the fish stocks rebound, commercial fishermen would be among the first to benefit.

But, it has become increasingly clear that if something is not done, there may not be many fishermen to benefit. The business environment for commercial fishermen in Maine has become so inhospitable that once-thriving fleets have been reduced to a handful of boats.

Fifteen years ago, there were 350 commercial fishing boats in Maine. Today there are only 75.

The fishermen and their families aren't the only ones who lose. Whole communities depend on the revenue they produce, especially the businesses that service the fishing industry. All of Maine could lose an important part of its history and the heritage of communities that made their living from the sea.

The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with the Rockland-based Island Institute to buy one fishing permit that will help support fishermen in Port Clyde, and with the Stonington-based Penobscot East Resource Center to buy another permit that will assist fishermen Down East.

The idea is to buy permits and create banks of days at sea that would be distributed to boats in exchange for conservation work. A typical fishing permit now allows only 39 days at sea, although some larger vessels purchase more than one permit. No new permits are being issued, but a fisherman who goes out of business can sell his.

The non-profits would buy the permits and bank the days. If new fishing rules go into effect next year that limit the size of a permit holder's catch instead of the days at sea, the non-profits could distribute an allowance to catch more fish.

These programs will aid conservation efforts. They will also help coastal economies. They won't solve the problems fishermen face, but they offer some help at a time when it is sorely needed.

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