Fleet Diversity Needed to Recover the Fish

By Fisherman Ed Snell, guest blogger
Portland, ME
NAMA Board Member

Note: This letter was addressed to New England fisheries decision-makers regarding Amendment 18 to the groundfish plan. We encourage everyone to join Ed by submitting your own comments in support of fleet diversity. Click here to learn how.

Dear New England Fisheries Management Council,

I am writing to support Amendment 18 and urge the Council to develop protections for fleet diversity.

As a young commercial fisherman and a person who grew up in New England, I’m proud of our region’s tradition of independence and support for individual rights. I’m also encouraged by the opportunities provided by the region’s natural resources. Stories of the ‘Good Old Days’ of commercial groundfishing in the Gulf of Maine are a painful reminder of such opportunity, wasted. Imagine the fish resource of yesterday coupled with the marketing networks of today – local food movement, charter boats, restaurants, fish markets, boatyards, chandleries – small businesses thriving as a direct result of careful and effective management – an economy celebrating conservation with its success.

The realization of this vision depends directly on the leadership and political courage of today’s fisheries managers. Courage is required to overcome the influence of a few self interested players who defend their stake by blocking solutions to the problems and hindering a more meaningful recovery of groundfish in the Gulf of Maine.

We know how it all went wrong; over fishing, destructive gear, failure to protect spawning fish and spawning areas – these are the mistakes that contributed to today’s relatively low abundance. I’m not interested in repeating these mistakes. I’m interested in creating and seizing the moment where it all starts to go right. Amendment 18 can be that moment. Fleet diversity measures provide opportunity to those who want to transcend the status quo and hold a stake in the successful future of sustainable groundfishing.

Today, small scale, more sustainable fishing operations are challenged by the fact that their fishery is increasingly less affordable. To begin with, the way quota was distributed was unfair and not in the interest of sustainability; those who historically caught the most fish, in other words, those most responsible for depleted fish stocks, were rewarded with the most quota.

When too few people control the right to fish, they are able to manipulate the cost of quota leasing to a point where those who own permits with significant quota, and lease to other fishermen, are the only ones who can make money. This modern form of marine sharecropping is a losing proposition. The everyday challenges that smaller scale fishermen face – high fuel prices, inconsistent fish prices, weather, etc. are increasingly compounded by the artificially high price of quota. Quota costs are continuing to rise because of speculative hoarding and trading of unfairly distributed fishing rights. In the same way that there are laws preventing businesses from forming monopolies, the amount of quota that a single person can control should be limited too. For this reason I strongly support quota accumulation caps.

Map by NOAA and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Higher fuel prices and the removal of trip limits have concentrated much of the fishing effort of the largest offshore boats in relatively small areas. This is detrimental as much research suggests that groups of fish that spawn together also travel together. Thus even when not technically spawning, that entire spawning population is vulnerable to the same extreme and lasting depletion we’ve seen in areas of coastal down east Maine. These sub populations’ loyalty to their spawning grounds makes the sort of concentrated effort on Stellwagen Bank akin to blocking a salmon river with a gill net. In order to remedy this systematic depletion of inshore fish, we must separate the fishery into an inshore and an offshore fishery. Smaller boats lack mobility and as a result these fishermen have a vested interest in their specific fishing grounds. This vested interest lends itself to the sort of area and ecosystem based management that leads to meaningful and effective regulations matching the scale of fishing to the scale of the ecosystem.

To date, fisheries managers have ignored the impact of fisheries on one another. Recovering fish stocks that are starved by mid-water trawlers and plagued by dogfish predation will not recover in the ways that they could and should. It’s essential that scientists and fisheries managers better understand and acknowledge the interaction of different fisheries and establish inter-fishery goals that are achieved through thoughtful and meaningful regulation in order to better facilitate the recovery of the ecosystem as a whole.

Today we are faced with a clear choice: Do we want to be the folks who stood by while the largest boats concentrated their fishing in small inshore areas and forced out the most sustainable and traditional operations out of business? Or, do we want to be the folks who stood up for independent fishermen – for small businesses that, as a result of what those who favor consolidation call “inefficiencies’, generate the most prosperity for the most people per pound of fish harvested? We have the opportunity to bring common sense back into the realm of fisheries management, to foster a meaningful recovery of groundfish, and to return to the ‘Good Old Days’. This is our moment, this is when we take the positive and meaningful steps toward rebuilding the ‘Good Old Days’.

Video: Aboard the Rita B with Ed Snell

Thank you Ed for sharing your comments. We encourage everyone who, like Ed believes fleet diversity matters to recovering the fish, to submit your own comments as part of a public comment period. Click HERE for help on e-mailing comments. Every comment counts!