The federal government declared the Northeast groundfish fishery a disaster in 2012. But disaster arguably struck the region’s groundfishing fleet, particularly in Maine, long before that.
In 1982, there were 328 vessels from Maine actively fishing for groundfish. By 2012, the number had fallen to 63 vessels participating in the first true industry that took root in colonial America — fishing for cod, haddock, flounder, pollock, hake and other ocean bottom dwellers. In 2014, 52 Maine vessels held groundfish permits.
The disaster declaration paved the way for Congress to provide disaster aid, and Congress followed suit in February 2014, granting $32.8 million to New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
But the funding the states have distributed so far has largely gone to those who have continued to land groundfish — not the dozens of vessels that have been forced out of the fishery, arguably those most affected by the fishery’s disastrous state. In Maine, 50 groundfish permit holders qualified for $32,500 each in disaster relief because they had caught at least 5,000 pounds of groundfish in at least one of the past four years.
In the coming weeks, Maine has a small opportunity to use its remaining disaster funds in a different way — to help set the groundfish fishery on a sustainable path for the future and make it a viable and affordable option for new and small players, including lobstermen looking to diversify beyond the booming crustacean.
Maine received its last portion of disaster aid in October 2015 (three years after the initial disaster declaration), and the state has wide latitude to use the money as it sees fit. The Department of Marine Resources expects to finalize its plans for the money — $1.02 million — in the coming weeks.
Instead of using the money exclusively for direct payouts to those who have continued to fish, a better destination for some of the funds would be the three sectors to which many of Maine’s remaining groundfish fishermen belong.
Sectors are groups of fishermen who pool the quotas of fish they are allowed to catch and decide how to apportion the catch limits among their members. The self-governing sectors could similarly decide the best uses for the money.
They might choose to put it toward defraying the costs of at-sea monitoring — an expense fishing boats will soon have to assume in order to fulfill regulatory requirements. Boats, under federal requirements, occasionally must have monitors on board who watch fishing behavior and collect data for federal regulators.
A sector might, alternatively, decide to use the money for permit banking — buying available groundfish permits that allow sectors to add to their quotas. Permit banking is also a strategy sectors can use to make it more affordable for younger fishermen to join a sector and start fishing. Rather than buying a permit, a new fisherman can, less expensively, lease some of a sector’s groundfish quota.
A sector could also decide to do something else entirely with a small payout.
“The three different sectors in the state of Maine represent groups of fishermen who have chosen to come together,” said Kyle Molton, policy director for the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, which helped found the Northeast Coastal Communities Sector and provides the sector with administrative services. “This is an opportunity for them to figure out what works for them.”
Cod and haddock are unlikely to ever return to their historic abundance in the Gulf of Maine, but there is an opportunity for a sustainable groundfish fishery to survive. That fishery, however, should look different from the traditional fishery of the past.
“Maybe you don’t have to be deck-loading tens of thousands of pounds of fish,” Molton said. “Maybe, on a day you’re not lobstering, you fish some groundfish and sell it locally.”
To the extent possible, the disaster relief funding should help the smaller-scale, sustainable fishery of the future take root.