Earlier this year, I created a timeline of notable events from the first year of sectors, or catch shares, management of the New England groundfish industry, which covers cod, haddock, flounder, and several other species. Now, Pew Environment Group has created a timeline of cod fishing that puts the intense controversy of the past year into a longer-term perspective. It doesn’t go back to the beginnings of the cod-fishing industry hundreds of years ago, but it does cover the past 35 years of federal fishery management. (Use the left-hand slider to zoom out if you don’t see anything)
The truth is, yesterday’s Senate field hearing on financial management by federal fishery regulators wasn’t just a one-day, one-subject event. With the vague title “How is NOAA managing funds to protect domestic fishing?” the testimony and questioning spanned everything from reforming NOAA’s law enforcement practices to providing financial support for New England fishermen struggling with the catch shares management system put in place last spring. And the lead-up to the event was its own political three-ring circus.
What got things started was the fact that NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) President Fred Krupp declined invitations to testify at the hearing.
The Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management held a public field hearing yesterday – arranged by Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown – on past law enforcement abuses by federal fishery regulators and alleged mishandling of funds from fines against fishermen.
A colleague at WGBH, Sarah Birnbaum, covered the event and filed this account:
A group of Massachusetts’ lawmakers is coming down hard on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency at the center of a contentious debate over regional fishing rights and the subject of a damning Commerce Department investigation last year.
During a Congressional hearing on the agency held in Boston on Tuesday, Rep. John Tierney called for the resignation of NOAA’s chief, Jane Lubchenco. He said the agency failed to respond adequately to reports of abuses by its staff.
On May 1st, 2010, the New England multi-species groundfish fishery (that’s cod, haddock, flounder, and several others) transitioned to a management scheme known as catch shares, or sectors. The new system is akin to cap-and-trade for fish. Regulators set total catch limits for each population or species of fish. Fishermen are allotted a portion of the allowable catch and can choose to fish their share, or sell or lease it to another fisherman.
While it was widely agreed that the previous system – which restricted fishermen’s days at sea and set daily catch limits – was broken, the catch shares system has been highly controversial in New England. Massachusetts politicians and fishermen – primarily from New Bedford and Gloucester – have called for major overhauls to the system, even filed legal challanges. Meanwhile, fishermen and elected officials from elsewhere around New England have said catch shares offers the best way forward for the region’s fishing industry.
Here’s how the first year of catch shares management for the New England groundfishery played out.
This Dipity interactive timeline is something I heard about from consummate science blogger Ed Yong. It’s pretty cool – far more eye-pleasing than a text run-down, plus you can comment on individual events in the timeline. There’s a LOT of material here, so zoom in and explore!
For those who absolutely must, you can read the timeline in plain-Jane-text format below the jump.
On May 1st, 2010, the New England groundfish fishery – cod, flounder, and several other species – switched to a new management system, known as catch shares or sectors. The system is akin to cap-and-trade for fish; industry regulators set total catch limits, then alot individual fishermen or fishing coops a portion of the allowable catch.
The groundfish catch shares system has been extremely controversial, with many fishermen and Massachusetts politicians saying it’s unfairly forcing local fishermen out of business. But others say catch shares is the best option for rebuilding sustainable local fisheries.
As the 2010 fishing season drew to a close last weekend, WGBH’s Bob Seay spoke with two Massachusetts fishermen – one who supports catch shares, and one who doesn’t – about their experiences with the system and their thoughts on the future of Massachusetts’ fisheries. It’s compelling listening.
We heard it first in January: the newly retired head of federal fisheries science announced that this would be the year we’d see the end of overfishing in U.S. waters. Why? Because, for the first time in 35 years of federal fisheries management, all fish stocks primarily fished in U.S. waters were subject to science-based, sustainable catch limits. If fishermen stay within those limits, no U.S. fish stocks will have been subject to overfishing this season.
Well, the close of the 2010 fishing season is less than a week away. And, indeed, all indications are that we’re on track to hit that historic milestone (check back for an update later this week).Understanding how we got here and how significant this really is could be a graduate-level course in the history of fisheries management. Maybe it is. Anyway, the impending end of the fishing season has brought a flurry of explainers and commentaries from those most knowledgeable about the topic. Dig in and share your insights in the comments.
Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S. – Lee Crockett, Director of Federal Fisheries Policy for Pew Environment Group, outlines the ecological and economic impacts of overfishing. This is the second in an ongoing Overfishing 101 series; the first was a brief intro to the series, and the rest have yet to come.
Extra Credit: Read about Lee Crockett’s personal experiences with the ‘wild west’ of the seas before the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act 35 years ago.
The Road to End Overfishing: 35 Years of Magnuson Act – Eric Schwaab, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, discusses the history of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the evolution of U.S. fisheries management over the course of 35 years.
The End of Overfishing in America – Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at Center for American Progress, provides analysis of media coverage of competing assessments of fisheries health, complete with pop culture
Let us eat fish – Ray Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fisheries science at University of Washington, argues U.S. fisheries are in better shape than many regulators say
Common questions about sustainable seafood – Q&A with Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and World without Fish.
On May 1st, 2010, New England’s groundfish fishery (that’s cod, haddock, flounder, and several others) transitioned to a new management system known as catch shares, or sectors. The system, which is a favorite with federal fisheries regulators, is akin to cap-and-trade for fish. Regulators set “hard TACs” – Total Allowable Catch limits that, if reached, force a halt to fishing – and then divvy up the allowable catch among individual fishermen or groups of fishermen, known as sectors. Fishermen can then trade allotments among themselves.
While it was widely agreed that the previous system – which focused on restricting where and how frequently fishermen could fish – was broken, catch shares has elicited an outcry from Massachusetts’ fishermen and politicians who say the new system is unfairly putting fishermen out of business.
Now, with less than two weeks left in the 2010 fishing season, fishermen and New England politicians who support the catch shares system are making their voices heard publicly. Nobody’s saying the current catch shares system is perfect, just that it’s better than the alternative.
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.
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).
This post replaces a January 28th post. It will be updated and moved to the top of the blog as new events surface.
The first year of catch shares, at a glance:
May 1st, 2010: The New England groundfish fishery adopts catch shares.
May 7th, 2010: New Bedford joins a federal lawsuit contesting the legality of the system.
August 29th, 2010: Four months into the fishing season, 60% of the fleet is at dock.
November 5th, 2010: Governor Deval Patrick requests emergency action by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to increase catch limits and provide financial aid to fishermen.
January 7th, 2011: Sec. Locke denies Gov. Patrick’s request.
January 24th, 2011: Ten environmental groups send a letter thanking Secretary Locke for his decision.
January 25-27th, 2011: The New England Fisheries Management Council votes to further review catch limits and the impacts of catch shares on fleet diversity.
January 27th, 2011: Sec. Locke denies a request by Gov. Patrick to widen the scope of a federal investigation into abusive treatment of New England fishermen by federal law enforcement.
January 27th, 2011: The New Bedford City Council calls for Sec. Locke’s resignation.
January 31st, 2011: Senator Scott Brown introduces a bill to require independently prepared, annual fisheries impact reviews.
January 31st, 2011: Gov. Patrick asks Pres. Obama to intervene on behalf of fishermen.
February 9th, 2011: Federal regulators propose raising catch limits for yellowtail flounder and 11 other species for the 2011 fishing season.
February 22nd, 2011: Sen. Kerry requests a private meeting with Sec. Locke and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco
February 28th, 2011: Proposed increases in catch limits for 12 groundfish stocks included in the New England Fisheries Management Council’s proposed rule, Framework 45.
March 8th, 2011: Federal fisheries chief Eric Schwaab defends catch shares before Congress and says fisheries’ prospects are looking up.
March 17th, 2011: Sec. Locke announces several actions requested by Mass. politicians, including financial aid for fishermen, extended filing period for law enforcement complaints, and an audit of penalty funds.
Massachusetts is home to two of the nations most lucrative fishing ports – New Bedford and Gloucester. So Massachusetts politicians will, of course, stand up for their fishermen. And New England has never been known for overly cordial fisherman-regulator relations. But the fight seems to have escalated to a new level in recent months. Here’s the run-down.
May 1st, 2010: The New England multi-species groundfish fishery (fifteen species including cod, haddock, and flounder) becomes one of the first in the nation to transition to a management scheme known as catch shares, or sectors. Under the new system, a total catch limit is set for a given species or group of species. Fishermen are allotted a portion of the catch and can choose to fish their share, or sell or lease it to another fisherman.
May 7th, 2010: New Bedford joins a federal lawsuit contesting the legality of the catch shares system.
August 29st, 2010: Four months into the catch shares experiment, the new management scheme is “working just the way both its detractors and its supporters believed it would.” 60% of the fleet is sitting at the dock; fishermen have decided it’s more cost effective to sell their catch shares and wait for prices to rise. In a three-part series on the topic, the New Bedford Standard Times says there could be severe financial repercussions for businesses that support the fishing industry.
November 5th, 2010: Governor Deval Patrick submits a reanalysis of federal regulators’ data on fisheries stocks and economic impacts to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke with a request for emergency action to increase groundfish catch limits and provide financial aid to fishermen who fear they are being put out of business by the catch shares management system.
January 7th, 2011: Secretary Locke denies Governor Patrick’s request to raise groundfish quotas and provide financial aid, saying that such a move would require new scientific data (not just a different analysis) and stronger evidence of economic hardship.
January 24th, 2011: Ten environmental groups, including Conservation Law Foundation, Oceana, Environment Massachusetts, National Resources Defense Council, and Pew Environment Group, send a letter to Secretary Locke thanking him for “the professional demeanor and objective consideration of the issues that NOAA and [National Marine Fisheries Service] staffs have displayed throughout this process.”
January 26th, 2011: In a somewhat unorthodox move, New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang took his own fishery advisory council to the New Hampshire hotel where the New England Fisheries Management Council was convening and scheduled a presentation down the hall and immediately following the Council’s own meeting; most of the Council members attended Lang’s presentation of fishermen’s complaints.
January 27th, 2011: The New England Fishery Management Council votes to have their Science and Statistical Committee review the independent analysis commissioned by Gov. Patrick, bringing the report into the regulatory process. In response to complaints that catch shares is driving small fishermen out of business and consolidating the fishing industry in the hands of a few big businesses, the Council also agrees to study the system’s impacts on the diversity of the fishing fleet, but only after the completion of the first full year under catch shares.