Last week, federal fisheries chief Eric Schwaab told Congress that U.S. fisheries are on track to meet the goal of ending overfishing this year, and that prospects for the fishing industry should improve in years to come. “We have turned a corner in our management of fisheries in this country, and the sacrifices made and being made by so many who rely on this industry are showing great promise,” Schwaab said. “As we end overfishing and rebuild stocks, we will increase the economic output of our fisheries, improve the economic conditions for our fishermen, and create better, more stable and sustainable jobs and opportunities in our coastal communities.”
Playing the cynic for a moment, that’s the sort of optimistic assessment one might expect to hear from the person in charge of federal fisheries regulations. But last week, I heard almost exactly the same thing from someone much closer to the ground. To quote Tom Dempsey, the policy director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association: “We’re at the bottom of this pit, and now we’re digging out.”
So what does digging out (or should I say fishing out?) look like?
Well, for one thing, Schwaab and Dempsey both point to expected increases in fishing limits. This year was the federally-mandated deadline for all U.S. fisheries to put in place science-based catch limits that immediately stop overfishing. Assuming the science bears out and the end of overfishing is confirmed, this year’s limits should – theoretically – be the lowest fishermen will see in the foreseeable future. As historically overfished populations begin to recover, fishing limits should rise. In fact, the New England Fisheries Management Council has filed a proposed rule that would increase catch limits for 12 groundfish stocks for the 2011 season that begins May 1st. Notably, catch limits for yellowtail flounder – a choke species whose low limits can shut down the entire fishery if reached – would be 44% higher than planned.
Given the increasingly vehement demands for increased catch limits that have come from Massachusetts’ politicians in recent months, that might seem like an enormous victory for fishermen. But consider this: not a single one of the twenty stocks in the New England groundfishery is on target to even hit, let alone exceed (that would be overfishing … bad, bad), its catch limit. We’re 88% of the way through the 2010 fishing season and fishermen have brought in just over 77% of allowable Gulf of Maine cod, less than 62% of allowable yellowtail flounder (that choke species I just mentioned), and between 12% and 20% of allowable haddock.
Tom Dempsey says this is evidence that the problems in the New England groundfish industry isn’t just about hyper-conservative catch levels, as is often argued. Instead, he says it’s an indicator that other parts of the management system are broken. He cities closed areas that are hangovers from the days-at-sea management system that preceded the current catch shares system, and also the failure of many fishermen to fully take advantage the new system.
But Dempsey says that’s only part of the story, that the catch shares system offers opportunities for fishermen to increase their profitability by getting innovative with how they fish and how they market their catch. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at three ways local fishermen are getting more (money) for less (fish).