New England cod fishermen have been subject to increasingly restrictive catch limits in recent years as the famed Atlantic cod has struggled to recover from a history of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine and, now, warming waters that have forced the species northeast in search of more hospitable environs.
The catch limits agreed to by the New England Fishery Management Council are a key part of a 10-year plan to rebuild Atlantic cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine. And such 10-year rebuilding plans are a key mechanism used by the nation’s fisheries regulators to rescue overfished species from extinction.
But those 10-year plans are generating political conflict in Washington, D.C., where the Republican-led U.S. House earlier this month passed an update to the nation’s four-decade old law regulating the nation’s fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act. President Barack Obama is threatening a veto.
The bill’s proponents argue that the nation’s fisheries regulations need to allow for more flexibility — that aggressive, 10-year stock rebuilding plans often create unnecessary hardship in fishing communities and that the 10-year timeframe doesn’t make sense for every species in every region. Opponents argue that such aggressive rebuilding plans have spared multiple species from extinction, such as the black sea bass off the Southeastern U.S. coast and the Acadian redfish in the Gulf of Maine, allowing them to rebound and be fished once again.
Maine’s House members split on the bill: Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin supported it; Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree voted no.
In this argument, both sides have some valid points. There’s a need for more flexibility and some level of hyper-local control when it comes to managing fish stocks. But the House fisheries bill offers a kind of flexibility that could dangerously put short-term economics above all else. The bill’s authors missed an opportunity to build a regulatory scheme that actually reflects how complicated the ocean is and differences between and within each commercial fish species.
The U.S. has long struggled to rein in overfishing and strike the right balance between reasonable regulations and the economic interests of those who depend on the fisheries for their livelihood.
Under Magnuson-Stevens, fisheries regulators are obligated to assemble species rebuilding plans for overfished species “that shall be as short as possible . . . and not exceed 10 years.” Catch limits for fishermen are the primary mechanism they use to carry out their plans. And the regulatory measures apply uniformly to wide swaths of ocean with, in some cases, major ecological differences within them.
But fisheries are more complicated than the law treats them.
Some species might reasonably be able to rebuild within 10 years, but some might not. “No scientific basis or analysis was involved at all in choosing a period of ten years….In fact, there are no scientific grounds for justifying any specific value as a standard for a fish stock rebuilding time,” reads a 2013 paper from the Massachusetts-based Center for Sustainable Fisheries.
And some species require more than restrictive catch limits in order to rebuild. Take the Gulf of Maine cod. Despite increasingly restrictive catch limits, the species has continued to decline. Regulators estimate it’s at 3-4 percent of the level where it needs to be in order to be considered sustainable in the Gulf of Maine.
As a result, aggressive and uniform catch limits apply to the entire Gulf of Maine — which stretches from Cape Code to the Canadian Maritimes. But the gulf is large enough to have distinct, independent subpopulations of cod in different areas. Some might need protections that cod in other areas don’t.
Regulators should be able to act on a local, rather than regional, scale in managing the comebacks of overfished species. This approach would require greater participation by fishermen — who have a stake in a species’ future success — in supplying information to regulators so they can determine reasonable catch levels in their areas and when fishing should stop.
Such an approach would be more complicated to figure out in the context of hashing out a major federal law. But that’s the work U.S. senators should undertake when the fisheries bill arrives in their chamber.