“Best Scientific Information Available” at Center of New England Fisheries Crisis

We know that for some fishing communities that have relied heavily on cod, haddock and flounder, the next several years are going to be a struggle. We’ve done everything we can to include measures that may help soften the blow of quota cuts, but it’s going to take a collective effort to find more ways to keep both the fishery and the businesses that support it viable while these stocks recover.

-John Bullard, NOAA Fisheries northeast regional manager

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced its final management measures for the Northeast groundfish fishery. This fishery is both the Nation’s oldest “industrial” fishery and, arguably, its most storied fishery. From the days when exploring European ship captains described an almost unimaginable bounty of fishes off the New England coast to last week’s final announcement by NOAA that stocks of some species are so badly depleted that severely lower catch limits would indeed kick in on 1 May, the story of fishing off the coast of New England is a cautionary tale any way you slice it.

At the heart of NOAA’s final verdict for the 2013 fishing season is something called “best scientific information available.” Like many of the policy issues concerning natural resource management in the United States, decision-making concerning fisheries management must by law be based on the best available science. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the piece of legislation that governs marine fisheries management in the United States, dictates in National Standards for Fishery (Sec.301) that conservation and management measures shall be based on “the best scientific information available.”

The trouble is, not everyone agrees on or necessarily trusts the science. Even, some argue, if the “best scientific information available” is correct, what it’s telling us about the fishery’s dire situation is neither consistent with the previous “best scientific information available” nor is it the fault of the fishers who will be hurt the most by the severe reductions in catch limits. A groundfish industry rally on 29 April at the Boston Fish Pier sought to air these concerns and bring the fishers’ fate to the attention of federal and state leaders who are in a position to help. The Northeast Seafood Coalition (NSC), which organized the rally and which represents commercial fishing businesses in the northeast United States, said in a statement:

[L]ess than two years ago, federal scientists projected the future of the groundfish fishery to be very bright. Their science indicated many of our key stocks would be fully rebuilt and achieving the maximum sustainable yield by 2014. Since then our fishermen have adhered to strict management measures and their catch remained well within the scientific limits. Yet, now we are facing a catastrophic ‘perfect storm of circumstances’ far beyond the control of our fishermen.

For its part, NOAA has been exploring a suite of actions that could help fishers better manage and adjust to the 2013 groundfish quotas. In its 30 April press release, the Administration outlined some of these actions:

Implementing an increase in quota for healthier stocks such as redfish, white hake, and pollock. Knowing the challenges facing groundfish fishermen, NOAA Fisheries adjusted the 2013 white hake quota upward by about 15 percent over the proposed level, because recent analysis shows the stock condition has improved.

Revising the rebuilding program for southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder, at the request of the council. As a result, the catch limit for this stock will be increased by more than 150 percent over 2012, and generate an estimated $5.4 million in additional ex-vessel revenue for the fishery.

Allowing some uncaught quota from last year to be carried forward into this year, reducing minimum legal sizes to allow more of the fish that are caught to be landed, and reducing some requirements for reporting, monitoring, and on small handgear operations.

Allowing sector vessels to submit requests to NOAA Fisheries to fish in portions of areas that otherwise have been closed to fishing.

Not surprisingly, many of NOAA’s efforts to relieve some of the economic hardship from New England fishers–especially the opening of some of the areas that have been closed for two decades–has been met with intense opposition from conservationists.

Many believe what is occurring–and what will occur this year as a result of the new quotas–is tantamount to a disaster. A spokesperson for NSC put it this way:

The long history of the northeast groundfish fishery for such iconic species as cod, haddock and flounder has been defined by hardships of every kind imaginable. The fact that our fishermen are still standing here today three centuries later is a testament to just how resilient and resourceful they are. They are the very best fishermen in the world. Yet the 2013 fishing year may be the end of that long journey. The crippling cuts in catches as much as 78 percent now in effect is more than even our fishermen can survive.

NOAA acknowledges the potential disastrous impact of the new quotas on fishing communities and points out that “[i]n anticipation of these cuts, the Department of Commerce pre-emptively declared a fishery disaster in the fall of 2012 and continues to work with Congress to help mitigate impacts to the region and maintain the long-standing culture of fishing in these communities.” With the 2013 fishing season now upon us, however, neither the Commerce Department nor Congress have come up with any money.

The story of fishing off the coast of New England is a cautionary tale any way you slice it. For some, it is a cautionary tale of overfishing and under-regulating. For others, it is a cautionary tale of putting too much faith in fisheries managers and a so-called best science that is at odds with some fishers’ firsthand experience. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the New England fishery, while showing many signs of progress, is still in an extremely precarious position. We can split hairs about how precarious that position is, but the more immediate issue at hand is what can be done about the fishery and the fishers and fisher communities who depend on it.

We must keep the “best scientific information available” at the dead center of the dialog as we move forward, but we must also not lose sight of the fact that true sustainability exists at the intersection of environmental, social and economic interests.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Groundfishing, Legislation, Northeast Fisheries, Overfishing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “Best Scientific Information Available” at Center of New England Fisheries Crisis

  1. Pingback: A Way Forward for Coastal Communities – Bullard Says NOAA is on Fishermen’s Side | The Good Catch

  2. Pingback: Does the Magnuson-Stevens Act Need More Regional Flexibility? | The Good Catch

  3. Pingback: Massachusetts Attorney General Sues NOAA Over “Callous Disregard” for Fishing Industry | The Good Catch

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