Report gives Rhode Island fishermen a blueprint for the future

Longtime Rhode Island fisherman Norbert Stamps remembers some advice a mentor gave him as a teen back in the 1970s, when he was working as an apprentice. The more you fish, the less you know, because things are always changing on the water, Stamps recollected his mentor teaching him.

Change is still constant in the seafood industry, but there is one thing the veteran lobsterman from Rhode Island knows is that the future of the commercial fishing industry is in flux. 

A variety of factors – some man-made, some natural, but all requiring attention – are causing massive upheaval in the Ocean State’s fishing industry. That’s the key theme from a report titled the Rhode Island Commercial Fisheries Blueprint for Resilience, which was released in April. It’s a 40-page report that took two years to complete and sought the input from 125 fishing industry stakeholders.

“Rhode Island’s fishing industry is at a crossroads,” the report’s executive summary said. “Changing environmental dynamics, the aging of the fleet and its fishermen, and shifts in societal attitudes towards work and wildlife cast shadows over this heritage industry and magnify uncertainty for the businesses that comprise it.”

The report outlines seven goals to keep the industry thriving in Rhode Island. Those include increasing the public’s understanding of the industry, developing more coordinated efforts for commercial fishermen to work together on issues that impact their business, protecting and upgrading their infrastructure and maintaining a viable ecosystem. 

It will now be up to the members who came together to take ownership of the seven goals and develop strategies to bring about the desired changes, said Sarah Schumann, who facilitated the group and oversaw the development of the report.

“We're not an organization,” she told SeafoodSource. “We're not planning to have a future as an entity. There are a lot of entities who are doing on the ground work in the Rhode Island fishing industry, as well as support organizations, nonprofits and other people who are in the industry space, supporting fisheries and our goal and business route for all of those people to play the role of implementing these things.”

Stamps said one thing the report did was help develop a collaborative environment among stakeholders.

“This platform of resilient fisheries, it really has solidified all the fishermen and their viewpoints into one platform where we can sit down and discuss different things and different ways of looking at things,” he said.

One area the fishermen would like to see a change is in the fishery management process. Rather than trying to manage each species, the group wants to see fisheries managed on an ecosystem basis.

For example, Stamps said current fisheries management does not take into account such issues as predator-prey relationships. If someone wanted to watch deer play in the woods behind their house, Stamps said they would take measures to ensure no coyotes were around.

Stamps also said previous management strategies were based on data collected by scientists and that led to faulty data and regulations that restricted the industry. The new generation of scientists, however, are more open to collaboration with fishermen to make determinations based on information fishermen share with government officials.

Among the other issues, Stamps said he also has concerns about water quality. Look at Narragansett Bay, he said, which has been a critical hub for fishermen in the area for many years. Today, though, the water is clear.

“The problem is it’s not supposed to be,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be a swimming pool. It’s supposed to be full of algae. It’s supposed to be full of different nutrients. That’s what the smaller fish feed on.”

With that, the lobsters and fish that feed off those food sources aren’t available in the abundant numbers as they once were. That means fishermen also have other challenges. For Stamps, it meant getting out of the lobster business and focusing on hagfish. Others may bring in smaller harvests but have to charge more just to stay in business.

It’s just one of the issues fishermen are facing on waterfronts as cities develop residential, commercial and recreational areas where boats also seek to work. Stamps understands it might be an uphill climb trying to convince residents and leaders the water may be too clear.

“We’re hoping this platform will get us to a place where at least somebody can look at that and consider that situation,” he said.


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