In the face of recent drastic cuts in groundfishing quotas, it is easy to understand why political leaders sympathize with the plight of fishermen up and down the New England coast. This industry formed the foundation of many of our communities.
New England groundfish fishermen have faced massive changes in the fishery for decades, and have had to adjust to an ever-changing set of management requirements. Unfortunately, one of the biggest crises to date is now facing our region’s fishermen. Key fish stocks are not recovering as previously believed, and the government had no choice but to make tough cuts to ensure fish and fishermen have a future. This has caused a crisis in the fishery, with many fishermen saying they are getting out of the business, and that has set off an understandable political reaction.
But thoughtful leadership means making hard choices when science, law, and common sense all point in the same direction. By acknowledging the difficulty confronting fishermen and imposing the limits that the law requires, National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator John Bullard has provided that leadership.
From an old New Bedford family, Bullard has known fishermen all his life, and the decision to cut the catch limits cannot have been an easy one personally. But professionally, as someone who has seen all the evidence of what is happening in our oceans, to our fish stocks and to fishermen — he simply had no other responsible choice.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has recently stepped into the complicated debate with a lawsuit that would reverse Bullard’s decision. Clearly, Coakley has seen the toll that declining fish stocks — and the ensuing decline in the fishing economy — is taking on fishing families from New Bedford to Provincetown to Gloucester and she has decided this is how the courts can help. No matter how well-meaning, this lawsuit sends a bad signal, and if it succeeds, would have negative consequences for both fish and fishermen.
The suit creates a false hope among fishermen that catch limits may be reversed when they should be looking for ways to catch other kinds of fish instead of trying to return to a bounty that no longer exists. Second, the suit sends the message that the members of the New England Fishery Management Council were wrong to impose the limits, and that the work of scientific experts inside and outside of government should be overruled.
Third, the lawsuit sends elected officials and stakeholders back to their respective corners, taking sides against NMFS and undoing whatever progress has been made to work together to find constructive solutions.
Finally, the damage that a return to higher catch limits would do the environment and the hopes to restore our fish stocks is unacceptable to all of us — and that undoubtedly includes the AG and every fishing family — who wants to see fishing continue for future generations.
New England groundfish has been the center of controversy and conflict for too long. We’ve reached a new crisis level. We all want fishermen to be successful and it is time to take constructive steps during this extremely challenging period — steps that will aid the fleet and the resource in the short and long term.
Renew efforts to better market fish stocks that are healthy and abundant in local waters, such as dogfish, redfish and pollock. Recently, EDF funded a study with UMass Dartmouth on ways to make these fish more attractive to consumers. Now, we are helping to fund efforts connecting local fishermen who catch these fish with large scale buyers.
Push for a comprehensive federal disaster economic relief package that helps fishermen in need and supports the future of the industry — such as more comprehensive electronic monitoring on fishing vessels and gear changes that will protect key species while enabling fishermen to keep fishing. EDF has joined political and industry leaders in calling for federal help, and will continue to do so.
Support efforts to forge economic revitalization plans for key ports. Invest in more science — particularly given the major challenges and questions associated with climate change — and perhaps most importantly, engage fishermen’s knowledge in figuring out the solutions.
Now is the time to work together to solve these complicated challenges.
Johanna Thomas is New England Regional Oceans Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund.