Searching for a solution to groundfishermen’s crisis

Posted Dec. 20, 2009, at 7:47 p.m.

The Chinese translation of the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one that represents “opportunity,” the other “danger.” You can’t pick up a paper and not see that groundfishermen in New England are in crisis. For many of us, this crisis hit years ago, and now we are trying to turn that into an opportunity in our communities.

For the past 15 years, fishermen who fish for cod, haddock, pollock, dabs and other groundfish have been managed under “days-at-sea” regulations. Since that time, more than 13 fish stocks still are classified as overfished, and more than half of the fleet has gone out of business. In 2006, the New England Fishery Management Council realized that the days-at-sea management system wasn’t working for the fish or the fishermen and asked stakeholders for new ideas. Submissions included individual fishing quotas, a points system, sectors and area management.

Since the council also was required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to incorporate annual catch limits and accountability measurements into the groundfish plan, and there were already two sectors operating in New England, they decided to move forward with only one of the alternatives: sectors. Sectors are a system of self-selecting, community-based, fishermen-run cooperatives for the groundfish fishery.

Fishermen can choose voluntarily whether to join a sector and fish under an allocation of catch or continue with days-at-sea effort controls for the fishing year starting in May 2010.

It is going to be a tough few years for all of us, regardless of which system you’re in. Fishermen staying under days-at-sea will be allotted 24.2 days to fish for the entire year. Considering some fishermen have to steam a day out and back from the fishing grounds, and the unpredictability of weather and fish, it is difficult to maximize a business plan.

Next year, the groundfish fishery will move from the original two sectors to 19 and will include 784 groundfish permits, accounting for more than 95 percent of the allocation of groundfish available to the commercial fishery.

Almost all Maine groundfishermen will be fishing from four of these sectors. We originally submitted an application for a sector for our community, the Port Clyde Community Groundfish Sector, or PCS. Our name no longer reflects our original intent because two years and 43 permits later we have expanded from our community to encompass fishermen as far south as Kennebunkport.

Our sector fishermen are committed to fishing only in the Gulf of Maine and to continuing to land our catch in the historic ports of this state. The PCS is a range of trawl and gill net vessels, and some who want to try hook fishing, which they feel would not have been a viable business option with days-at-sea because of the pressure to fill their boats under a ticking clock.

Many community fishermen feel they have been left out of the process and that management decisions have been a “one-size-fits-all” approach, tending to support larger-scale operations. We see another benefit to fishing in sectors: We will now be a strong voice among only 19 at the table, rather than one voice lost in a crowd of thousands. We always say the government is not listening, but unfortunately the opinions it has heard in the past didn’t represent the concerns of the entire fleet. Now we will all have an equal say in the management process.

In the years to come, we hope to keep the remaining 70 boats that still were landing groundfish in the state of Maine in 2008 in business. We all are facing low allocations of fish next year, yet if we are able to be pioneering with our business plans, gear and marketing, it could get us through.

I empathize that the major changes ahead are putting all fishermen into a crisis, because I am right there. Now is the time to focus our energy on the opportunity before us and work together for a better future for our businesses and our communities. Fishermen are resilient by nature, and we will find innovative ways to weather this initial storm.

Jim Frank is a lifelong fisherman who has fished from Alaska to Maine and will be the sector manager for the Port Clyde Community Groundfish Sector.

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