May 10, 2013

New England groundfish industry at crossroads

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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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.

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:

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC


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