In his most recent Fish on Fridays post for the Center for American Progress, Michael Conathan discusses an unfamiliar problem for fishermen, particularly those in New England’s groundfish industry:
Two weeks ago, Fish on Fridays focused on an announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, that we have effectively declared an end to overfishing in America. The first of the 10 National Standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that governs our fisheries establishes this goal as a fundamental principle.
Yet the law doesn’t stop there. It further mandates achieving “optimum yield,” which is defined as the amount of fish that “will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation” while maintaining sustainable populations. This dual requirement implores managers to seek a careful balance between catching too many fish and catching too few.
Many of our fisheries are struggling to find this balance. But perhaps the New England groundfishery, arguably the most historic industry in the nation, is the best example. The fishery consists of 16 different species, including four different flounders, haddock, and the iconic cod. Overfishing was rampant in the 1980s and early 1990s in the groundfishery, technically known as the Northeast multispecies fishery. Now, with overfishing ended, one of the biggest problems facing today’s groundfishery is—wait for it—underfishing.
Many New England fishermen have complained that unnecessarily low catch limits are putting them out of business. In fact, that’s a case that New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang and his fisheries advisors took directly to Congress last week. But the data suggest the problem isn’t catch limits themselves.
New England groundfishermen caught barely a quarter of the total amount of fish they were legally able to harvest in 2008. …
This year’s early data shows that sector management has made some improvement in this area. But still, as of March 26, with just over a month left in the fishing year that ends on April 30, the only stock even close to its allowable harvest for the year was Gulf of Maine cod. Fishermen in sectors have caught about 80 percent of their allowable amount, according to NMFS’s own data. Meanwhile, they have caught just 17 percent of their Georges Bank haddock—the single stock that accounts for more than half of the total available groundfish catch.
Conathan chalks such underfishing up to flaws in the system, not lack of effort on the part of fishermen.
Fishermen have a legitimate beef when they complain that regulations are preventing them from catching fish that scientists say they should be able to catch. The law is clear on this point: Regulators must act as swiftly and decisively now to help fishermen catch more of the fish they are allowed to land as they did to impose restrictions when harvest levels were too high.