As the New England Fishery Management Council considers the passage of Amendment 18 to its current Fishery Management Plan, northeastern fishermen are rethinking the nature of their occupation in terms of both access and diversity. Since 1986 when the council adopted the plan as an outline for restoring the Gulf of Maine fisheries, they have taken a dynamic approach to ensuring that it serves both the fishery and the fishermen. The passage of Amendment 18 holds significant promise for Maine’s coastal communities by emphasizing the health of small, owner-operated inshore fleets and access by new participants.
The council, one of eight national bodies established in 1976 by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, abandoned in 2009 its former Days at Sea policy that strictly controlled the number of trips vessels could take in search of their target species. They introduced a new regulatory model based instead on catch shares that, through autonomous “sector management,” would reduce the competitive pressure to overfish.
However, one of the consequences of sector management has been the overaccumulation of catch-quotas by larger fishing fleets and the subsequent decline of coastal fishermen who operate inshore vessels. Through revised regulation of catch-share distribution, Amendment 18 proposes to counteract these trends that have enabled larger fleet owners to disproportionately consolidate their fishing efforts. Many regard it as a measure that might have a twofold importance: that it will allow new entrants into the fishery and, in doing so, will improve marine stewardship among participants.
The NEFMC’s scoping hearings in January have revealed dissent among industry voices along traditional geographic and occupational fault lines. The major commercial hubs of New Bedford and Gloucester have spoken out against what they perceive to be an unfair blow to their accumulated catching power and political gravitas.
Fishermen in other areas, including midcoast Maine and on the Cape, have likewise expressed support for this measure that might increase their competitiveness with larger vessels, while easing the entry of new participants. Those with expanded fleet capabilities see a sure loss on their investment in vessels and processing equipment.
The seafood wholesalers who deal with them are concerned for the status quo as well. But what lies at stake is not so much the independence of the consolidated industry. Instead, it is the ability of other common-pool fishermen to maintain their own and make available opportunities for the next generation.
“Much of this type of planning for the New England fleet should have been part of Amendment 16, but these issues are constantly put on the back burner in favor of current management crises,” according to Fisheries Program Coordinator Lucy Van Hook, of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
Both the MCFA and the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington have led public debate as proponents of the measure. While struggling Maine fishermen face the consequences of forced dependency on southern New England regional markets, “planning for the future composition of the industry is essential, especially to the smaller, inshore vessels and the communities that depend on them,” according to the MCFA.
But Amendment 18 also broaches a larger question outside of immediate quota concerns: What role should equality play in a fishery? Historically, fishermen have approached marine resources through an ethos of winner-take-all competition. The idea of an even distribution of those resources has seemed anathema to those who believe in the just rewards of the free market and individual skill.
But for today’s ailing fisheries, the solutions that might ensure their recovery must also recognize the necessity of ensuring the survival of the small communities that depend on them. Without local fleets to provide jobs and sustenance, coastal communities — that haven’t already — will eventually become tourist meccas dependent on out-of-state money and seasonal business. To lose them would be as tragic as losing the Gulf of Maine itself.
In any discussion of the northwest Atlantic’s groundfishery, there are sadly few points of agreement that might create unanimity within a divided industry. There is only the subjective posturing of divided fishermen and regulators. But we stand now at a junction where fishermen on the margins of their trade can begin to recover some of what they have sacrificed to consolidated fleets. Amendment 18 will modify the existing power structures that have controlled New England’s fleet, and it is for that reason that it offers new possibilities for both environmental management as well as the resurgence of small-scale fishermen.
As the NEFMC debates the merits of Amendment 18, its consideration might lead us to one of the few unifying ideas that make this regulation one of common enterprise: that the ideal of recovery for New England’s communities and its marine resources is not yet out of reach.
Joshua Wrigley is a freelance writer from southern Maine and a marine conservation advocate. For more of his writing, visit annandaleangler.com.