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2013 Law & Public Policy, Commentaries

A change for the better: Retooling the New England ground fishery

Clinton_smBy Neil ClintonDownload as PDF.  After decades of overfishing, mismanagement, and decreasing stock sizes, fishermen, scientists, and regulators have found a way to work together in order to bring about significant change in the management of the country’s first and oldest fishery.  Better science, tempered with a more flexible management style, is ending an era of overfishing, and helping to rebuild ground fish populations in New England.

Commercial fishing in Massachusetts is a four hundred year old industry.  It is an integral part of the region’s identity, and those who take up its backbreaking labor are fiercely protective of it.  To be a commercial fisherman in Massachusetts is more than a job, it is a way of life that families have carried on for generations.  However, this way of life has been threatened by a dramatic depletion in the fish stocks.

For two decades the New England fishery management council has sought to develop a policy that would end overfishing and rebuild ground fish stocks, but its efforts to strike a balance between conservation and commerce have met with little success.  In the mid 1990s the agency adopted a regulatory scheme aimed at controlling how, when, and where fishermen could operate.  This strict management style led to the development of a derby-style environment in which fishermen competed with one another to catch as much fish as they could.

For many fishermen it became standard operating procedure to exceed their daily catch limits and then dump hundreds of pounds of excess before returning to port in order to avoid being fined.  Not surprisingly, stocks declined, profits dried up, and officials tightened restrictions.  With no alternative means of earning a living, fishermen continued to operate in the same manner.  By the end of the decade the fishery had all but collapsed.

The ensuing crisis pitted fishermen, scientists, and policy-makers against one another. There were disagreements over population sizes, where and when individuals could fish, what gear to use, and ultimately how much of a particular species could be caught.

However, a handful of stakeholders found a way to escape the heated arguments and finger pointing.  Together, they drafted an amendment to the New England fisheries plan that would dramatically change the way the industry operates.

In 2006, the New England fishery management council proposed an amendment to the existing regulatory scheme.  The plan established a catch-share program by which fishermen could voluntarily join a cooperative in order to pool resources.  This sector management system, as it came to be known, allowed each member to fish an unlimited number of days without daily restrictions so long as he did not exceed his annual quota of a given species.

The policy aimed at using science-based catch limits, adequate monitoring of target fish, and a reduction in by-catch discards to end overfishing and rebuild the stocks.  Within a year of its implementation in 2010, discards (undersize and non-targeted fish) were reduced to an almost negligible level.  As a result of this change in behavior, there was a general feeling amongst stakeholders that a real and lasting progress could be achieved.  One sign of this good feeling was the fact that all but one percent of New England fishermen joined a sector.

The system has not been immune to criticism.  Many within the industry believe that the sectors are causing a consolidation of quotas in the hands of a few fishermen, who have larger fleets and bigger boats.  And there are still difficulties in making accurate assessments of fish stocks.  For example, there was controversy in January 2013 when inaccurate forecasts led to a decision to dramatically reduce the quota of Gulf of Maine codfish.

Still, the overall success of the project cannot be denied.  The majority of fishermen, scientists and regulators are working together to develop more effective means of targeting healthy fish populations.  And stock assessments are slowly getting better.  Regulators are starting to understand that fishery management is not an exact science and that policy must account for this uncertainty.

The road ahead will force many to leave the industry.  But for those who remain and carry on the sector management system a healthier more productive ground fishery will result.

Neil Clinton is in his second year at Suffolk University Law School.  He received his B.A. from Bowdoin College.  Neil is a Marine combat veteran who served six years on active duty prior to attending Suffolk.  He plans to pursue a career in environmental law with a focus on energy policy. 

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