A Way Forward for Coastal Communities – Bullard Says NOAA is on Fishermen’s Side

We’ve done all of this to help soften the blow of quota cuts. But more can be done.

-John Bullard, Northeast Administrator NOAA

In an opinion piece the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAAS)’s John Bullard penned for today’s Gloucester Times, he once again attempted to get NOAA in front of the reduced groundfish quotas that took effect on 1 May. In my blog entry yesterday about the Magnuson-Stevens Act and “best available science,” I listed several of the actions–some quite controversial–NOAA is considering to help fishers better manage and adjust to the 2013 groundfish quotas in the Northeast. In Bullard’s piece in today’s Gloucester Times, he adds to that list in an effort to once again make the case that NOAA is on the side of fishers and fishing communities.

Clearly not everyone agrees, and the debate seems to grow more polarized by the day. As one reader writes in response to Bullard’s piece:

what an honest, caring, considerate, thoughtful, wise, compassionate, pleasant man, John Bullard is.

we should all be so very thankful that he is Northeast administrator for the NOAA.

i think this man deserves a raise.

John, why do so many Gloucester fishermen write to the GDT and contradict all you’ve written here? and characterize you as a bumbling idiot? and why do they write and expose outrageous past corruption in NOAA leadership?

whom shall i believe, John? you, a bureaucrat – or men and women who actually risk their lives to make a living

As of this afternoon, every comment written in response to Bullard’s piece is negative. Many, like the one above, are sarcastic. Biting. Downright mean. They are the comments of people who sound as if their backs are against the breakwater and who are running out of options. Fishers, in my experience, are independently-minded folks who would prefer to be fishing than engaging in politics and PR, but the current situation necessitates their presence at public meetings and hearings, rallies and press events. Some are eloquent in bringing their voice to the table. Others do so in a manner perhaps best left to the stern of a trawler. Regardless, these are important voices, and having the dialog is essential.

Many commenters on Bullard’s piece express the sentiment I hear so frequently when I talk to fishers around the globe who are facing increasing regulations, decreasing quotas and higher costs of doing business: a distrust of government bureaucracy, grant-funded scientists and people who don’t work on the water but who make a living regulating those who do. But that’s currently the way fisheries management in federal waters works. Managing federal fisheries currently requires a bureaucratic infrastructure, scientists earning federal dollars, and people who are not out fishing making decisions based on the proverbial big picture.

And let’s not forget in all this that, while federal fisheries management often appears mired in the bureaucratic equivalent of a fouled trawl net, much of federal fisheries management has worked. Many stocks are in far better shape today than they were in 1976 when the Magnuson-Stevens Act came online, and the Act has proven nimble enough to adapt–though not quite as quickly as many would like to see–through two re-authorizations. Today marks the start of the third Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference, which will begin the debate in earnest about what the next incarnation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act will look like. Will it prove nimble enough to adapt to the new challenges of fisheries management moving forward? I hope so.

In the meantime, NOAA will continue to walk a fine line. As Bullard states in his piece, “legal and biological reasons” dictate many of the decions NOAA makes when it comes to managing fisheries. For example, the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires conservation and management measures be based on “the best scientific information available,” and the scientists responsible for gleaning that “best science” are, according to Bullard, “seeing emerging ecosystem changes that may be hindering recovery.” Global climate change, ocean acidification, terrestrial runoff secondary to coastal development and agriculture…these are not new ideas to the public, but these stressors are playing an increasingly consequential role when fisheries management transitions from a species-by-species to an ecosystem approach.

Of course to the critics, an ecosystem stressor like global climate change is little more than, as one commenter in the Gloucester Times put it, the “new scape-goat for [NOAA’s] incompetency.” As one fisherman told me recently, “Maybe it’s true, and maybe it’s not. Maybe the fishery is changing because the waters are warming. Maybe that warming is even manmade, but that’s not our fault, and we shouldn’t be punished for it. We shouldn’t be punished for something we didn’t do.”

And I think that gets to the heart of it. Many fishers in New England, especially those engaged in groundfishing, feel like they are being punished. Worse yet, they feel like they are being punished for something that isn’t their fault. “We were told we were on track for stock recovery by 2014, and now they’ve dropped the quotas by almost 80 per cent,” says an angry groundfisherman from Maine who now lands his catch in Massachusetts where he can legally sell his incidentally-caught lobsters. “We need every dollar we can earn from our fishing right now, or we’re not going to be fishing much longer.”

The real Holy Grail here is finding the sweet spot where environmental, economic and social concerns coalesce. Fishers and fisher communities need to make money fishing, but they also need healthy fisheries to insure the economics are sustainable. Put another way, healthy fisheries and thriving working waterfronts can create real economic incentive to conserve ecosystems. One of the big questions we will need to answer in the near future is how best can fisheries be managed  given the shift from a species-by-species approach to an ecosystem approach? Can federal fisheries management (i.e., NOAA) be responsive enough to regional issues, or will a regional approach be more adept at meeting the challenges of the future?

To answer these questions, all parties will need to tone down the rhetoric and re-commit to a dialog that will at times be frustrating–even infuriating–regardless of what side of the debate one is on. We will need to look to the best available science and think about our children and our children’s children irrespective of if they will be fishers, government administrators or environmental activists.

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 Global Climate Change, Groundfishing, Legislation, Northeast Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Way Forward for Coastal Communities – Bullard Says NOAA is on Fishermen’s Side

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

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