Ogunquit tuna fisherman Steve Weiner got it right when summing up the closure of the Bumble Bee Sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor.

”There can’t be anyone who thinks what happened to that cannery isn’t tragic,” he said.

The proposed April closing will mean the end of the century-old American sardine industry, and the loss of 130 good jobs in an area where they are hard to come by. The plant’s owners say they can’t keep going without more fish, but there is a hot debate over why the fish aren’t available.

It’s easy for the industry to blame the regulators, who recently imposed a total allowable catch level that is well below what is currently available.

The regulators, however, are being advised by scientists to take a cautious approach to avoid a collapse of the fishery that would be catastrophic both environmentally and to the people, like the cannery workers, who depend on the economic activity a healthy fishery provides.

There is a case to be made that the problem is not over-regulation but under-regulation, which allowed mid-water trawlers that string a net between two fast boats and strain the resource in ways that traditional techniques do not. There is a lot riding on the herring’s health. While the loss of the Prospect Harbor cannery was a significant economic blow to one community, a shock to the Maine lobster industry, which relies on plentiful herring supplies for bait, would be a major setback for the whole state.

And, as the Prospect Harbor experience shows, it’s not just the fishermen who get hurt, but a wide variety of people whose jobs depend on the economic activity that commercial fishing generates. The only thing that will save those jobs is healthy fish populations, so science and not political considerations should set the strategy.

Unfortunately, the projections are only as good as the data available, and the scientists are limited by budget constraints that limit the quality of the information available to them. With so much riding on what the scientists determine, this is a bad place for the government to save money.

Preserving the fish stocks and the jobs that depend on them is the best way to avoid more tragic losses like the Prospect Harbor closure from shutting down what’s left of one of Maine’s most important industries.


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