On May 1, New England fishermen gained more flexibility to fish in ways that make business sense — while allowing our ocean ecosystems to recover. But for the new system to work, federal managers need to take critical steps.
The New England Fishery Management Council, consisting of commercial and recreational fishermen, industry representatives and government officials, voted last year to adopt a promising fisheries management system called sector allocation. Under this plan, groups of fishermen voluntarily form community-based cooperatives known as sectors. Every year, each sector agrees to catch only a certain allocation of groundfish, such as cod, haddock and flounder. The annual catch limit ensures that overfishing does not occur, so stocks can rebuild.
In return for adhering to catch limits, sectors will enjoy more freedom to decide how, when and where to fish. Vessels can work more safely, with increased efficiency, and follow a profitable business plan.
This year, there will be 17 sectors along the New England coast. The vast majority of active, full-time groundfishing vessels, as well as many part-time vessels, have enrolled in the sectors — and represent 98 percent of New England’s historic groundfish catches.
The future of New England’s 400-year-old cod fishery pivots on the sectors’ success, which therefore should become the top priority of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Making it work requires several important changes.
First, NMFS needs to implement an enhanced catch monitoring program. Managers must know how many fish are landed or discarded, so fishing can stop once limits are reached — not just for the target species but also for “bycatch,” or fish and other animals that happen to get caught with the species being fished for. With better data, scientists can offer improved advice about future catches. Hiring observers will also create more jobs in the regional fishing industry.
Next, measures also should be taken to ensure that fishermen who don’t join sectors, known as the common pool, stay within annual catch limits. If the common pool overfishes, fewer fish will be available for the sectors, causing the new program to fail. This requires comprehensive monitoring of all fishing vessels. The federal government already has allocated more than $10 million to help New England’s fleet make the transition to the new monitoring system.
Finally, NMFS should quickly employ current fish stock information. Today, it takes far too long from data collection to actual adoption of a plan for management. Managers, in fact, often make decisions with years-old data. In a dynamic, ever-changing marine environment, fishery managers need to base decisions on the most current numbers, to reduce bycatch, end overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks and ensure success of the new sectors.
For example, pollock, a close cousin of the iconic cod, is often caught with other groundfish. Fisheries managers rely on scientific data, which in 2008 showed that pollock stocks were in trouble. This science indicates that the catch must be reduced substantially during 2010 to 3,000 tons, down more than 70 percent from 11,000 tons in 2009.
But catch limits are set separately for different species, despite the fact that many groundfish congregate — and are netted — together. If set too low, pollock catch limits may be reached long before those of other species being caught at the same time, forcing the sectors to stop casting nets early. This scenario could jeopardize the success of the new sectors, causing serious problems in New England’s fisheries.
New pollock population data soon will be available. Given the potential impact of inaccurate limits on the success of the new sectors, NMFS should redouble efforts to evaluate and incorporate the new data immediately, not next year. If the updated science supports increased catch of pollock, the sectors could be more profitable during this critical first year of operation. For all its stocks, New England’s fishery managers should follow the example of the eastern Bering Sea pollock fishery, which uses data only months old to adjust assessments and management.
As New England embarks on sector management, all parties involved need to work to ensure success of the program, so fishermen can make a living, fish stocks can rebuild and our fishing communities can thrive once again.
Peter Baker directs the Pew Environment Group’s New England Fisheries campaigns.