The news from the National Marine Fisheries Service this week was as inevitable as it was devastating: The number of days fishermen are allowed to harvest their catch would be cut again this year, to only 20 days for some. After years of reducing so-called “days at sea” and putting areas off-limits to fishing, both fishermen and conservation groups agree a new approach is needed. They would be wise to team up and devise one, based on localized management, before the federal government does.
NMFS announced Wednesday that it planned to reduce days at sea by 18 percent for the groundfishing season that begins May 1, with further reductions for a large portion of the Gulf of Maine.
Fishermen in New England are now limited to 48 days at sea. In 1996, they were allowed to fish for 110 days per year.
Despite increasing restrictions, the number of fish remains too low in many commercial species. The most recent assessment by the fisheries service found that 13 of 19 groundfish species remain overfished. New England has the highest percentage of overfished stocks of any region in the country.
Reducing days at sea or putting more areas of the ocean off-limits to fishing clearly is not the answer. The direct approach of limiting catch is overdue.
NMFS has said this is the direction it hopes to move toward, perhaps in new comprehensive rules that are scheduled to go into effect May 1, 2010.
In the meantime, the proposed rule will cause great harm to fishermen with little benefit to fish.
“I am appalled and profoundly troubled that the agency would even consider the draconian measures contained in this proposed regulation, much less actually present them as a viable solution to the current crisis in the groundfishing industry,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
She has pledged to ensure NMFS understands the financial consequences of the proposed rule, especially on Maine’s shrinking fishing fleet.
The rule “will not solve our problems and may well cost many of the region’s fishermen their livelihoods,” said Peter Baker, manager of the Pew Environment Group’s End Overfishing in New England campaign. “The time for a new approach has come.”
That new approach should be a quota system with a mechanism to divide the catch among fishermen within localized regions.
Regional management has worked well for the state’s lobster fishery. It, coupled with a strict catch limit and localized quotas, could be the answer to New England’s long-standing overfishing.