March 10, 2010

Maine's fishing fleet would benefit from division into sectors

— Fishing has long been an essential part of Maine's history and heritage.

Some two centuries ago, church bells would ring in Port Clyde each time the fish were running, beckoning families to unload and clean the day's fresh catch.

The future of that tradition once seemed set in stone.

But then came nearly two decades of fisheries mismanagement and overfishing that decimated cod, flounder and other groundfish stocks.

Now, the fishermen who are left plying the waters can barely eke out a living.

This week, everything could change.

A monumental vote by the New England Fishery Management Council, which is meeting in Portland, could finally put fish and fishermen on a path toward a brighter future.

Under a new management plan, fishermen would have the opportunity to work in community-based harvesting cooperatives.

But the new approach will only be successful if the council supports a fair and equitable system that holds all fishermen accountable for their catch.

The new plan would be a welcome departure from the failed approaches of the past. In 1994, a complicated regulatory scheme called days-at-sea was introduced to limit a fisherman's time on the water and how much fish he could bring to port each day.

Even with restrictions that became more and more severe, fish moved farther offshore, landings plummeted and participation in the fishery started to shrink.

Fishermen struggled to keep their businesses afloat.

Less than 70 groundfish vessels landed their catch in Maine last year, according to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

With fewer fish to be found in Maine's in-shore waters, fishermen have to steam four hours to get to any productive fishing grounds.

Many Maine boats now land their catch in Massachusetts, taking that economic value and local access to fresh fish with them.

Ask any fisherman in Maine and he'll tell you that Maine's proud groundfishing heritage is on the brink of extinction.

The time for change has come, and a majority of Maine's fishermen have seized an opportunity to opt out of the old days-at-sea system and join the fishermen-run cooperatives, known as sectors. The council will decide this week whether to allow fishermen from around New England to form 17 new sectors, joining two already in operation on Cape Cod.

In sectors, fishermen get allocated a share of the total allowed catch each year (determined by scientifically-based catch limits).

They fish for it without daily trip limits or the ticking of the days-at-sea clock.

They are able to manage their businesses as they see fit -- deciding when, where and how to catch their allocation.

They support good monitoring of their catch and stop fishing when their catch limit is reached, which gives fish populations a chance to rebuild.

It may be hard, in the beginning, for independent-minded fishermen to embrace such a new and different approach. But there is a strong desire among the fishermen I work with not to be the last fishermen in Maine -- which is why sectors are the only way forward.

Regrettably, many fishing vessels haven't signed up for sectors and will remain in the so-called ''common pool,'' where guidelines for the new annual limits and monitoring have yet to be set.

And while the proposal clearly calls for monitoring the sectors, it does not yet pay equal attention to monitoring how much fish is being caught -- and discarded -- by vessels that stay in the common pool.

It would be unfair, and would further threaten rebuilding of New England's groundfish populations, if the common pool fishermen don't have to live by the same rules as sector fishermen.

The federal government has already allocated $10 million to help transition the entire New England fleet to a new monitoring system.

The council needs to set the expectation that all vessels will be monitored and vote that common pool vessels will also fish with a hard catch limit, creating a level playing field for all.

Church bells don't announce Port Clyde's fresh catch anymore.

But there are still a dozen fishing vessels steaming out to sea each week, bringing back the fresh, wild-caught seafood that echoes the traditions of our past.

The new management plan is Maine's last best chance to ensure a future for its historic fleet, and make certain that local cod and flounder will be on the dinner tables of our children and grandchildren.

— Special to the Press Herald

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