Earlier this month, my agency put temporary rules in place that will govern groundfishing in the Northeast for the next year, providing the needed time for building a better fishery management plan. Now we all need to focus on what will happen over the next five years and how to bring the rebuilding era in this fishery to a successful close.
In the coming months, we must focus on achieving these goals and, however tough the going is, work together to get there. First and foremost, this means using the fishery management process to get the best possible plan, as we pull it together for implementation in the 2010 fishing year. The decisions to be made are hard, and will have a lasting influence on how the New England groundfishery works, looks and succeeds in this new century.
Specifically, we must ensure that groundfish stocks have the protection they need to rebuild. Regardless of how we decide to control fishing for the long term, catches will be set according to what the stock can bear. Better condition, more fish, more landings. To soften the economic transition to sustainable fishing, we have gradually reduced fishing effort rather than immediately ending overfishing, but we must now finish this task to secure the future health of the fishery.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the New England Fishery Management Council have already been working for more than a year on the new fishing sectors. We must not weaken in this commitment, and there is still much to be done. Sectors are new to most of us in the Northeast. To move from days at sea to sectors smoothly, the sectors must be well designed, so that they will work as intended right off the bat. Sectors must be well understood by those who want to form one, as well as those who must track their performance and success. Transitioning away from days-at-sea effort management and to a multiple-sector fishery means multiple reporting, monitoring and evaluation that require a complex management infrastructure. We must be confident that this infrastructure is ready, working and can be well maintained.
The fishing industry holds a majority of the seats on the New England Fishery Management Council and has a unique opportunity among natural resource users in the U.S. to have a direct hand in shaping the rules that govern its business. The partnership between NOAA and the council has never been easy, but through that process concerns are addressed and new ideas are formulated and evaluated. This is how we come to consensus, across a broad range of interests and requirements, on how to proceed.
All of us involved in groundfish management have come a long way since 1994, when NOAA and the council first began to address the record lows in cod, haddock and flounder stocks and rocketing fishing rates.
There has been undeniable progress in recovering stocks since the formal groundfish rebuilding effort started in 2004 with overall biomass increasing and average fishing rates nearing the long-term sustainable level for the first time on record. It has not been as fast or as dramatic as many people would like, but progress is being made and we need to capitalize on it.
With rebuilding success, vessels will fish less time than in the heyday of high, inefficient fishing effort, but land more fish and in amounts that are consistent, year after year. We can do it in a way that relies less on government in the wheelhouse and more on what’s best for fishing businesses. These are the successes that can form a new and stronger basis for fishing in the modern era.
To do so, support is necessary for all who are working on rebuilding this fishery.
Patricia Kurkul is the Northeast regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.