At a Senate subcommittee field hearing in Portland Tuesday, a federal fisheries regulator said the current rules have “not entirely achieved the desired results.” That was a big understatement.
Rather than move to solve the problem, however, James Balsiger of the National Fisheries Management Service said his agency and fishermen need time to change the rules. While this may technically be true, delaying a change to a saner way to reduce the amount of fish caught will hurt the fishing industry.
Currently, federal regulators rely largely on restrictions on the number of days fishermen can fish to reduce their catch. Fishermen in New England are now limited to 48 days at sea. In 1996, they were allowed to fish for 110 days per year.
Now, regulators are considering reducing days at sea by another 18 percent. A decision is expected in coming weeks.
Such a reduction would “regulate our nation’s first fishery out of existence,” Sen. Olympia Snowe said at the hearing. As the ranking member of the Senate’s subcommittee on oceans, atmospheres, fisheries and Coast Guard, she convened the Portland meeting and was the only lawmaker in attendance.
Her concerns were echoed by fishermen and state regulators.
The root of the problem is that, despite increasing restrictions, the number of fish remains too low in many commercial species. The most recent assessment by the fisheries service found that 13 of 19 groundfish species remain overfished. New England has the highest percentage of overfished stocks of any region in the country.
Reducing days at sea or putting areas of the ocean off limits to fishing clearly is not the answer.
As Mr. Balsiger, the acting assistant administrator for fisheries at NMFS, and others said, a new approach is needed. He suggested a “sector” system, which would set quotas for given areas.
This direct approach to limiting catch rather than restricting days at sea in hopes of limiting what is caught is overdue. Mr. Balsiger is probably right that such a shift can’t be put in place for next year’s fishing season. But, committing to a quota system now gives regulators, both at the national and regional level, time to develop such a system. More difficult will be developing a system to divide the quota between fishermen within each region.
Funding a pilot project like that proposed by the Area Management Coalition could provide some answers. The Down East Maine group, made up of fishermen, scientists and conservationists, is ready to test a regional management approach.
It has proposed that Maine’s inshore fishery be managed by a local council that would set restrictions for those who want to fish in the area. By managing on a smaller scale, the hope is that fishermen will be rewarded for restricting their catches to allow populations to grow.
Regional management has worked well for the state’s lobster fishery. It, coupled with a strict catch limit and localized quotas, could be the answer to New England’s longstanding overfishing. Testing it out now will give regulators time to fix shortcomings while transitioning to a better way of managing the region’s fishery.