BOSTON — Tales of huge haddock hauls were a few of the fish stories that came with the boat Chris Brown bought last year from a Canadian. To Brown, they were stories of missed opportunity.
The previous owner told Brown that for years the vessel trolled the edge of an area closed to U.S. fishermen for conservation. Because no one told the fish the Canadians hadn’t signed on, the fish grew undisturbed in U.S. waters, then swam east into the nets of waiting Canadians.
“They were incredibly grateful for our conservation efforts,” Brown, of Point Judith, R.I, said dryly.
Such circumstances are one cause of underfishing — a phenomenon that has struggling U.S. fishermen catching a fraction of what regulators say is a safe amount to take from rebounded stock, leaving millions in potential revenue in the water.
Haddock is the prime example. The stock rebounded spectacularly after plummeting in the 1990s and is one of the few completely healthy groundfish species.
But in 2009, Northeast fishermen caught just 6 percent (13.4 million pounds) of the roughly 235 million pounds scientists said could be safely gathered on Georges Bank, the lucrative fishing ground between Nova Scotia and Cape Cod. The percentage was the same two years ago and lower in 2008, when fishermen caught 4 percent of their allowed catch.
At about $1 a pound dockside, the lost revenue last year on 222 million pounds of uncaught Georges Bank haddock was a blow to New England, where revenues for all commercial species were about $784 million.
The reasons for underfishing range from the natural challenges of New England waters to various fishing rules. But industry advocates say that as fishing towns sweat out their futures, regulators must relax the rules to make it easier to catch more of the robust stocks.
“I think it’s just a tragedy,” said Steve Ouellette, a fisheries attorney in Gloucester who has studied underfishing. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of fish are being wasted.”
Underfishing is the opposite of the far better-known problem of overfishing, but it’s directly tied to it.
According to federal scientists using 2007 data, 13 of the 19 regulated stocks of groundfish are overfished. Since the species live among one another in New England waters, weak species are inevitably pulled up with strong.
Ouellette said regulators have wrongly tried to protect the overfished species with such low catch limits that fishermen who go hard after healthy species will catch too much of the unhealthy ones, and be forced to shut down.
He believes regulators are managing each species “in a vacuum” as part of a misreading of fishery law that leads them to try to rebuild individual stocks by a certain time, no matter how it affects fishing on another species. He argues the law allows higher catch limits on weaker fish, even if that slows their recovery, so fishermen can get at more of the robust species that swim among them.
There’s a demand for more fish like Georges Bank haddock, Ouellette said, adding that Canadians are already catching and selling some of it. The price would probably drop initially if U.S. fishermen pulled in tons more, but Ouellette said it would rebound once current and potential customers were convinced of a steady, increased supply.
Last week, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said he would consider emergency increases in catch limits if the scientific and economic numbers justified it. But he didn’t signal a vastly new reading of fishery law and said he would act only if he was certain it wouldn’t undermine the law’s intent: to protect fish.
Even without any catch limit increases, said National Marine Fisheries Service chief Eric Schwaab, a new management system adopted in the Northeast in May offers major incentives to find ways to catch the healthy fish while avoiding the weak species. Some fishermen like the new system, even though they almost universally blast the low catch limits they’re working under.
Fisherman Jim Odlin, who owns five boats out of New Bedford, Mass., and Maine, said the old system tried to protect fish by giving fishermen a decreasing number of fishing days, so it forced them to use their limited time to catch whatever they could, as fast as they could — “almost fishing stupid,” he said.
But the time pressure is gone now, said Odlin, a member of the regional council that helped make the new rules. Fishermen now work in groups called “sectors” to catch their annual allotments on their own time.
Odlin said that gives fishermen more freedom to chase undercaught stocks, such as the healthy but little-sought redfish that Odlin has his captains hunting in hopes of rebuilding its market.
Brown, the Rhode Island fisherman, added that the cooperation in the new system makes fishermen more open to sharing what they’re seeing at sea — crucial for finding and avoiding certain species. When everyone was a competitor, he said, “a lot of guys would be very careful with the truth.”
Scientists also aim to reduce underfishing with gear designed to haul up more of the healthy stocks. The existing “eliminator trawl,” for instance, has large openings at the bottom of its net so cod and flounder — which dive when pursued by a net — can escape. But smaller openings on top snag haddock, which swirl and swarm upward when chased.
But gear advances take considerable time to be perfected and accepted by fishermen, and the industry is looking for urgent relief.
Dick Allen, a former commercial fisherman from Wakefield, R.I., who consults for groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, cautions that if Locke raises catch limits, he would simply be allowing fishermen to catch on the high end of a range scientists guess is safe. If the science is wrong, stocks could be damaged.
Still, Allen said regulators must do more to reduce underfishing. For instance, because haddock is so healthy, why not open part of the closed area near where Brown’s Canadian friends made a killing?
“Everybody’s got to kind of switch their mode of thinking about how we’re controlling this fishery,” Allen said.