May 10, 2013

New England groundfish industry at crossroads

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Groundfishing boats like the Lydia & Mayat, left, pictured in 2009, are struggling to stay afloat financially. Some fishermen believe that current federal fisheries regulations are too rigid, while others argue that they are painful but necessary in order for the groundfish industry to survive.

Gordon Chibroski/2009 file photo

Maine Fishery Landings
Explore Maine fishery landings from 1950 to 2011 by clicking the image below.


Overview of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act

Established an exclusive fishing zone for U.S.-based fishermen extending 200 miles from shore, prohibiting foreign fishing vessels from coastal waters.

Created eight regional fisheries councils around the country to be filled by state and local officials, fishermen and other representatives to provide more local management decisions. These councils are charged with putting in place plans to manage commercial fisheries and restore depleted fisheries.

Amended in 1996 and reauthorized in 2007.

During the 2007 reauthorization, the act was strengthened significantly to require that councils set annual catch limits and accountability measures to address overfishing.

A key part of the 2007 revision was a requirement that councils create scientific advisory committees that would essentially set a ceiling on catch limits.

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.

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