Disagreements, Not Fishermen, Pose the Biggest Threat to New England Fisheries


The grim news for New England fishermen began arriving in late August. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the number of codfish in the Gulf of Maine had hit a record low of 2,100-2,400 metric tons, 3-4% of what is needed for a sustainable fishery. In other words, the New England cod fishery appeared close to collapse. In December, NOAA announced a solution: cod fishing was commercially banned on the Gulf of Maine for the next 6 months.

Yet fishermen had a different story to tell. They claimed that the Gulf of Maine was not just rebounding from previous years’ shortages, but thriving. In some places, the numbers seem to back them up: according to the Portland Fish Exchange, Maine and New Hampshire fishermen landed 80% more cod between May and September than over the same period last year, despite the fact that there were 93 fewer trips out of Portland in 2014.

The announcement that a moratorium on cod was needed to save the species therefore ruffled a few scales among Gulf of Maine fishermen, who insist that NOAA must be basing catch limits on inaccurate models. The NEFMC went so far as to hire a police detail for its October 1 meeting in case tempers grew too heated.

This is not the first time there has been contention between fishermen and the authorities over stocks. In December 2011, NOAA reported that Gulf of Maine cod were overfished, with only 13-18% of the recommended biomass remaining, despite strict adherence to catch limits by local fishermen. At the same time, Gulf of Maine fishermen were describing larger hauls of more cod than usual, not smaller. In the end, the scientists won out: the federal government declared the Gulf of Maine multispecies fishery a disaster zone, and a year later, the NEFMC slashed yearly quotas to 1,550 metric tons, a 77% decrease from 2012.

Why do scientists and fishermen consistently disagree about the health of the Gulf of Maine fisheries? Scientists are quick to remind critics that stock projections are based on trawls of the entire Gulf, not just the productive areas where fishermen ply their trade. In addition, fisheries ecologists have found that falling populations of schooling fish spur survivors to “hyper-aggregate” in certain areas. These aggregations often give the impression of abundance, despite overall scarcity.

In an effort to offset the new measures on cod and keep fishermen from floundering financially, the NEFMC has chosen to increase the Gulf of Maine haddock commercial quota for the remainder of the 2014 fishing year, raising it from 323 to 641 metric tons. Even so, the regulations have left New England fishermen angry and unsettled. Many fishermen believe the models these regulations come from are fundamentally flawed, or even that tight regulations are an outright attempt to drive fishermen out of business. This resentment may prove the greatest danger to Gulf fisheries yet. Fishermen who do not believe in the reasoning behind restrictions are less likely to follow them, resulting in unreported broaches of catch limits and further fisheries depletion.

Breaking this vicious cycle will require active communication between fishermen and regulatory bodies. Rather than handing down laws from on high, NOAA should invite discussion of the issues that fishermen believe are underrepresented, as well as work to ensure that fishermen understand the reasoning behind fisheries regulations. Such a program has had success in eastern Maine, where Penobscot East has pioneered round-table sessions between fishermen, regulators, the public, and scientists to discuss laws and community issues. Since January 2008, eastern Maine fishermen have been engaged on topics such as community resilience, K-12 education, fisheries management and the marine ecosystem. Discussions often “redefine a problem in common terms, based on a shared understanding of what we all want to achieve, what we know, and what obstacles might exist…This process engages fishermen’s creative problem solving skills and redistributes responsibility for success.”

Penobscot East also runs the Sentinel Survey Fishery, a federally-funded research program in collaboration with the University of Maine that, since May 2010, has supported exploratory research trips by fishermen to collect data on exploited groundfish in the Gulf of Maine. Data collected through this program will be used to assess stock recovery and in the formulation of future management plans.  A program similar to the Sentinel Survey Fishery program could feasibly be expanded to include other research opportunities for fishermen in the Gulf of Maine. In addition to the Penobscot East goal of increasing data on endangered fisheries, this program would have the specific goal of keeping fishermen educated on the scientific data about the fisheries they work and the methods used to gain this data.

Of course, the disillusionment between fishermen and scientists comes from two sides. NOAA scientists will have to work in turn to ensure they deliver the most accurate data on New England fisheries. Assessments in 2008 suggested that Gulf of Maine cod stocks would reach healthy levels by 2011 under the recommended catch limits. The near-collapse of cod that followed in 2011 instead highlighted flaws in the models these limits were based upon.

New models, as well as programs bringing fishermen into the loop on laws, would require new funds from Congress, a feat that has been nigh impossible in recent years. It remains to be seen whether the flip to a Republican-controlled Congress will be a boon or bust for New England fisheries. Republican distaste for government spending is well known, but an influx of support may be the only way to save the economies in states that depend on this floundering industry.

Claudia Geib is a junior in the journalism program at Northeastern University. The views expressed are hers alone.

Image source:  talkingfish.org  (Joachim Miller)