Give a man a fish, the adage goes, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. But what happens when the one who needs fish is a fisherman?
Last month, the federal government took a long-awaited step toward answering that question when Congress allocated $75 million in fisheries disaster aid. Now the hard part begins for the National Marine Fisheries Service. First it must come up with a plan to divide the assistance among six different fisheries nationwide. Then it must determine how to spend the money that goes to each region.
The New England groundfishery, which targets cod, haddock, and flounders, received its disaster declaration in 2012 following decades of overfishing, and a failure of fish populations to recover despite increasingly strict limits on the catch. In addition to excessive harvest of fish, the ecosystem has also suffered from the compounding challenge of climate change.
Together, these factors have left it dangerously out of balance. With this influx of cash, which could represent the last hope for America’s first fishery, regulators and fishermen must weigh their desire to provide immediate assistance to industry members against the opportunity to make the entire groundfishery more solvent. The easy path — one for which some industry members and local politicians have advocated — would have regulators simply divide the money among active fishermen, allowing them to pay down their loans and perhaps save their boats or houses for another year or two. But then what? This fishery won’t recover for far longer than that.
According to a recent report from the National Marine Fisheries Service, groundfish revenue fell by $24 million in 2012, a 23 percent decline. And this plunge doesn’t account for drastic reductions in catch limits which took effect in 2013 and will remain for at least another two years. When the revenue figures for 2013 come out, things will undoubtedly look much worse than they do today. Thus, no matter how much of the $75 million ends up in New England, there won’t be enough to sustain the industry until the fish come back.
Absent adequate fish or funding to solve the problem, the only solution is to reduce the number of fishermen, something that is already occurring albeit in an unplanned way. Since 2009, the number of boats making at least one groundfish trip has dropped by 30 percent. And it will fall further.
One way regulators should help to responsibly manage this loss of fishing businesses, is through implementation a buyback of groundfish permits. While the total amount likely won’t be enough to fund the entirety of a buyback program, a relatively small amount of disaster funding could be used for a federal loan guarantee, leveraging additional cash to buy permits from willing sellers.
Those who remain would then pay back the loan over time using a percentage of revenue they generate from having access to more fish. Additional funds could also be made available to cover the first year or two of interest payments. Past attempts to implement buyback programs in US fisheries have shown that designing an effective framework isn’t easy, but it can be done. In groundfishery, the industry must develop a structure that allows for a graceful exit from the fishery for those who choose it while preventing a scenario in which the only surviving operators are large vessels consolidated in fewer fishing ports.
The program must not simply shift the focus onto other fisheries like monkfish or lobster. And it must allow access to the next generation of fishermen once fish populations have begun to bounce back, with continued participation in traditional ports from downeast Maine out to Provincetown and down to Long Island. Because the upfront cost of a buyback would be low, it could be just a small part of a broader disaster relief package. There would still be funding to alleviate fishermen’s financial hardship, to implement programs aimed at protecting smaller fishing communities, and to pay fishermen who remain to engage in cooperative research programs with scientists.
Accepting a buyback will be no easy decision for many fishermen. Any New Englander knows fishing is not just a job. It’s a way of life — often one that spans generations. There will be anguish in leaving it behind. But for some, there will also be relief. And for those who remain, less competition may mean a real chance at a future.
Regardless of how the agency and the industry decide to allocate the funding, it must be used to not just buoy the existing industry, but primarily to invest in its future. They may not be able to give fishermen more fish. But they may yet be able to make this fishery last a lifetime.
Michael Conathanis director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress.