Current management measures certainly didn’t cause groundfish to disappear; decades of incessant greed and overfishing did. Now environmental conditions and global climate change are probably making it harder for those fish to rebound even as catch is scaled back. This is not a new story. Newfoundland cod crashed in the 1990s and, after a harvest moratorium lasting more than a decade, still hasn’t recovered. It may not be too late for New England’s groundfish to avoid such a fate, but if it is to do so, managers must address the elephant in the room: too many boats chasing too few fish. Historically, politicians have been loath to admit such unpopular truths.
The recent disaster declaration does not ensure that the New England fishing industry will receive emergency funds, but it is expected to help elected officials from the region make the case to Congress that such funding is needed. That task will still be difficult given the current climate in Congress and the expected cutbacks for just about everything. A rider allocating such funds has been attached to a Senate emergency farm bill. That bill is expected to pass, but it’s not certain whether the rider will survive the legislative process. The House passed an emergency farm bill this summer but didn’t address funds for the fishing industry. Given the differences in the two farm bills, it is impossible to predict whether any fishing industry funding approved by the Senate will survive conference committee efforts to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
Giving a handout to the fishing industry will likely just prolong the pain that it is experiencing, without providing a permanent solution to its problems. To its credit the majority of the fishing community doesn’t want the handout. Yet current draft legislation includes a combination of funds to provide immediate economic relief (aka direct payments to the fishermen), improve fisheries science, help with the cost of observer programs, offset costs of the new sector-management system and possibly finance a fishing vessel buyout to be jointly funded by the government and those remaining in the industry. So it may not be all that bad.