In September 2012, at the urging of a delegation of New England legislators, the Secretary of Commerce issued a “disaster declaration” for the New England groundfish fleet, which, not surprisingly, faces additional catch restrictions due to the failure of many fish stocks to recover as quickly as originally expected.
Despite the financial pinch the country is in right now, and not withstanding the need to reduce the deficit, up to 100 million of your hard-earned tax dollars may bail out an industry that, for 40 years, has depleted a publicly owned resource that had fed most of the Western Hemisphere for half a millennium, all the while disregarding warnings from scientists, resisting needed catch reductions, and lambasting anyone who has advised precaution.
Allowable Catch Reductions
In the fall of 2011, rumors of a new stock assessment, which indicated that Gulf of Maine cod were in far worse shape than was previously believed, began to circulate. Even if all fishing ceased, the stock would not recover by 2014, the legally mandated deadline. Similar results emerged when the assessment’s methodology was applied to other species in the groundfish complex. NOAA Fisheries’ initial reaction was to apply a Band-Aid to the gaping wound, cutting allowable catch by 20 percent in 2012. However, additional reductions of up to 72 percent on Gulf of Maine cod, 70 percent on its cousin Georges Bank cod, 51 percent on yellowtail flounder and 69 percent on American plaice, commonly known as sole, are expected in 2013. Panic has ensued.
First came the usual denials we often see with such assessments. Fishermen claimed that there were plenty of fish around, but the numbers are bearing out the sad fact that fishermen simply aren’t able to fill their current quotas. As of this past September, not one major groundfish stock had yielded a harvest that exceeded even a third of its annual quota (though Gulf of Maine winter flounder came close at 32.3 percent). Groundfish-sector fishermen had caught only 16 percent of their quota of Gulf of Maine cod. Fishermen simply aren’t finding the fish because they aren’t there.
The Blame Game
The public debate is now awash in “it’s not our fault” arguments, perpetuated not only by fishermen and their lobbyists but also by regional and local politicians who seem more concerned about re-election than the long-term sustainability of the fishing communities they are supposed to represent. Environmental and climate factors are being blamed as the sole culprits. Certainly, the arguments correctly point out that in recent years overfishing has been almost entirely curtailed, since recent legally mandated catch limits (which many have resisted and largely criticized as unnecessary) have kept total harvests to sustainable levels. But they fail to acknowledge that populations left decimated by decades of extreme overexploitation have been slow to rebuild, as the recent assessments indicate, and that it’s entirely possible that some stocks in the complex may never recover, southern New England winter flounder being a prime example.