Northeast Groundfish Woes Persist


SeafoodSource staff

Published on
January 15, 2009

The National Marine Fisheries Service again tightened the vise on New England’s fishing industry yesterday by proposing further cuts in fishermen’s days at sea come May 1. What NMFS should consider cutting is the ineffective groundfish management system it’s been using for years.

The latest NMFS proposal, released yesterday, includes an 18 percent reduction in days at sea, which were already down to an average of just 48 days a year per vessel. It’s a tough living for the few fishermen remaining in the Northeast United States, where groundfish stocks haven’t recovered since collapsing in the early 1990s.

Limiting the number of days at sea hasn’t proven an effective strategy, many observers say. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) called the recently proposed measures “draconian.” Yesterday, I asked a colleague at our sister publication, National Fisherman, what the general term was for this style of fishery management. His answer: “chaos.” And naturally, very few interests can agree on a solution.

Perhaps the New England Fishery Management Council should consider a strict individual fishing quota (IFQ) system similar to what’s employed along the West Coast; the Gulf of Mexico grouper fishery will also likely adopt IFQs soon, complementing the red snapper fishery scheme. I acknowledge the pressure on the council and on NMFS to not only rebuild stocks by the federally mandated deadline of 2014 but also protect fishermen’s livelihoods. However, it’s clear that radical changes are in order.

For years, a mountain of lawsuits filed by environmental groups alleging fishery mismanagement hamstrung NMFS. It’s entirely possible that Northeast groundfish stocks have been supervised with the simple priority of avoiding further litigation. On the other hand, the health of a fishery does not depend solely on its administrators; environmental changes may be playing key roles with the stock biomass that are not yet fully understood.

Alas, many seafood buyers have long since moved on, having learned New England groundfish is not a viable source. While you can still find Georges Bank cod and haddock on certain fine-dining menus, imported and farmed seafood has clearly taken over as the dominant supply source in the United States. That fact is unlikely to change any time soon.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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