President Barack Obama’s decision to declare the New England groundfishery a disaster opens the door for support at a critical time for fishermen in ports throughout the region, including Maine. Now Gov. Paul LePage and members of the Maine congressional delegation who worked hard for this declaration need to make sure that funds dedicated to the industry are used to save fishing for the long term.
The deep decline in the numbers of cod and other groundfish in New England waters has created this critical need to help local fishermen and fishing communities. But any support to the fishing industry needs to be more than a simple transfer of money. We need to ensure that there are fish for the fishermen to catch in years to come.
By making smart investments now, we can do more than help fishermen through this crisis. We can take care of fundamental needs to provide assurance against potential future disasters.
Without the catch share program – a cooperative system that gives fishermen a dedicated percentage of each harvest – now in place for more than two years, the situation would be worse. No one wants to see a return to the old, dangerous and wasteful “days-at-sea” approach. But today, we confront the frightening reality that fishing is changing in part because our oceans are changing.
Fish populations are not rebuilding, as the best science once predicted. And fish are growing more slowly than they did even a decade ago. Fishermen are not finding the fish as readily as they once did, in spite of new management measures intended to sustain the fishery. We need a disaster-recovery solution that helps fishing families now but also ensures healthy fish populations for tomorrow. What works?
First, the government should continue to cover the costs for the near term to help improve the monitoring activity on fishing boats. In New England, only one-quarter of fishing trips have on-board monitoring that tracks what fishermen are catching at sea, mainly due to the expense of having human observers on board the vessels. On-board monitoring involves documentation of all the fish that are being caught. It is important because it gives scientists and managers a reality check on what is happening to fish stocks, rather than relying solely on estimates and models.
Compare that with the West Coast groundfish fishery, which has on-board observers on all boats at all times. Without something comparable, New England scientists lack a real understanding about the condition of fish stocks, what’s being caught and, far too often,
what is being thrown overboard.
Whether the catch is monitored by camera or a human observer, it is imperative we get a better understanding of what is coming on board fishing boats and happening in the ocean – without adding more costs to fishermen. The government can have more efficient and effective monitoring coverage, while saving money for fishermen and taxpayers. For example, using cameras, rather than human observers, to document fish catch has been tested and proven to be effective and can save money.
Second, the federal government must dedicate funds for continued research and assessments of fish populations. If New Englanders are going to continue fishing into a fifth century, we need the best available science. For example, we need to answer questions about the impact of climate change on groundfish stocks in order to develop an effective long-term strategy for the fishery.
Third, the federal government should use disaster relief funds to assist fishermen in the design and testing of gear that will help better target abundant fish populations, while relieving pressure on others, as well as gear that will reduce fuel consumption and other costs. There are ways to adopt gear to catch what fishermen want to catch and leave behind what needs to be protected.
In addition, consumers can do their part to support New England groundfishermen by buying less-traditional species that may be less familiar. Redfish, for example, is abundant in the oceans and is as delicious as cod or haddock, but it’s not as common in restaurants or markets.
Finally, we can take steps now that help family fishermen remain in business during this difficult period and into the future. One method to achieve this is through adopting accumulation limits, which put a cap on how much fishing quota any single fisherman can own or control. Long overdue, and long supported by the Environmental Defense Fund, these actions are necessary to prevent the control of excessive shares of fish by any individual or company. Similar measures have been adopted in many other fisheries with great success.
This state was built on the back of the fishing industry. The coming months are a crucial time to reflect on the importance of fishing and healthy fish populations, and to do the right thing to protect this important part of our heritage.
We know there will be hard decisions, but let’s make ones that will ensure that fishing in New England remains a way of life, not a relic of history.
Johanna Thomas is the director of the New England and Pacific regions for Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program, and Matt Mullin is the deputy director of New England for the program.