BUXTON — I attended the Feb. 1 meeting of the New England Groundfish Management Council in Portsmouth, N.H., where the fate of the sacred Gulf of Maine cod fishery was to be decided, in response to the controversially dismal stock assessment.

The meeting was filled with rhetorical posturing on all sides, especially when the council was deciding what total allowable catch to recommend to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

If you want to win an argument about fisheries management, all you have to do is say, “It’s not that simple.” But in spite of the many complexities, there are sound questions to be asked regarding the legitimacy of the stock assessment. I’m confident that the picture is neither as bleak as the assessment and environmental groups suggest, nor as rosy as some of the fishermen report.

The council eventually voted to recommend that the total allowable catch for Gulf of Maine cod be set at a level between 6,700 and 7,500 metric tons.

But again, it’s not that simple. Adjusting only the total allowable catch fails to address the fundamental factors inhibiting an effective recovery of groundfish stocks, or what policies would create a truly sustainable, economically beneficial fishery for the long term.

The quota system inherently favors large fishing operations that are allowed to concentrate their efforts in relatively small areas, close to shore, like Stellwagen Bank.

This sort of fishing effort is not sustainable and has devastating consequences to the recreational, charter and small boat owner-operator commercial fleets that depend on the abundance of inshore fish.

These smaller fishing businesses create the most economic activity per pound of fish harvested. They are limited by the size of their boats, the fishing methods they employ, their limited range and lack of scale — characteristics that directly translate into a seriously vested interest in good stewardship in the areas they fish.

But to date, they are also the ones who suffer the largest financial burdens from fisheries regulations. Basically, those least responsible for the problem are asked to make the biggest sacrifices.

Regulating only the total allowable catch fails to address issues in the herring fishery, which provides the major food source for cod, or the record numbers of predatory dogfish. The dogfish population is high as a result of feeding on by-catch, and years of arbitrary protection.

Their abundance is so acute that some charter captains and tuna fishermen accurately described the situation this way: “You know you have an overpopulation when you can throw a dart anywhere on the chart, go to that location and catch dogfish, using virtually any fishing method.”

The high numbers of spiny dogfish are a direct obstruction to recovering groundfish stocks, as they compete for food, prey on groundfish and negatively impact the survival rates of discarded fish that are released alive.

Back at the meeting, perhaps the biggest surprise came when Jim Odlin, a council member who owns several very large groundfish boats, made a motion to open many closed areas to commercial fishing. This motion passed in the dubious context of a full day of discussion regarding a fishery described as being in crisis.

I can support this only if it includes a provision to prevent the largest, least sustainable boats from fishing these inshore areas and repeating the same mistakes we see on Stellwagen Bank. I cautioned at a meeting in November that if these areas are to be opened, they should be opened to the smallest and most sustainable operations, to minimize the impact of such a liberal measure.

Regardless of the ecological implications of opening these areas, I question what sort of message this sends politically.

The council can only make recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has the real decision-making authority. I can’t help but think that voting to open these areas undermines the council’s other recommendations and brings into question the council’s legitimacy and effectiveness as a good-faith policymaking group.

As a young commercial fisherman, I want our cod fishery to recover and thrive. I’m strongly in favor of regulations that are effective and sensible. The council’s total allowable catch recommendation fails to regulate all of the complex variables that hinder a meaningful recovery of Gulf of Maine cod, further suppressing small-scale, sustainable independent fishermen and, in turn, Maine’s working waterfronts.

As long as the New England Groundfish Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service continue to ignore the fundamental problems that inhibit a recovery, we’ll continue to have fisheries in crisis.


– Special to The Press Herald