The latest evidence that the current approach to commercial fisheries regulation in New England isn’t working came last week when new federal rules, requiring a reduction in the time fishermen spend fishing, were announced.
Federal regulators want more fish left in the water to rebuild populations of cod, flounder and other species. The problem is that they continue to try to accomplish this by restricting the number of days fishermen can fish and by putting areas off limits to fishing.
A more direct, and likely more effective, approach would be to restrict how much fish can be caught, in total and by individual fishermen. While such quotas have long been opposed by New England fishermen – although they are working well in other parts of the country – the latest rule change makes it clear there are no other good alternatives.
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced new rules to protect cod that will count a day spent fishing in the inshore Gulf of Maine, which stretches from southern Maine to Cape Cod, as two fishing days. According to the latest NOAA assessment, the cod population had fallen by 20 percent between 2001 and 2004. The agency also said the yellowtail flounder population had been overestimated by 77 percent.
In 2004, the New England Fisheries Management Council reduced allowable days at sea from 88 to 53. This rule, which goes into effect Nov. 22, now cuts that to less than 27 days per year.
Fishermen, naturally, say they can’t make a living working so few days.
This shows the problems with constant tinkering with a calendar and a map rather than limiting what can be caught. A better solution would be set a strict overall catch limit coupled with a quota system to divide up that catch. This would let fishermen get back on the water when it was economical and safe.
Limiting the catch makes more sense. Coupling it with a quota system gives fishermen more freedom to decide when to fish, based on prices for different fish species and weather conditions. Quotas are working well in fisheries in other parts of the country and world, but there are strong resistance to them in New England.
Quotas and catch limits are included in an updated version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, national fishing rules that are now being revised by Congress. The next step is to set up a system of quotas to divide up the allowable catch among fishermen, with consideration given to community cooperatives and small vessels.
The bill that passed the Senate requires, at the behest of Sen. Olympia Snowe, a two-thirds vote among fishermen in New England to enact quotas here. Although a high hurdle, lawmakers and fishermen should realize that existing rules aren’t working and that a new approach is needed – before the number of days they can fish is cut to zero.