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The Podium

Handicapping our fishermen

Hadddock populations are known to be cyclical. Having recovered from recent lows in the 1990s, the stock is now healthy and abundant. In fact, for nearly a decade, haddock biomass has been hovering at or above the highest levels recorded in 60 years. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at what American fishermen have been landing. Despite being one of the most plentiful groundfish stocks available, our fishermen have been mostly unsuccessful at harvesting their allocations.

For a much different picture, we need only to look to the Canadian side of Georges Bank. Haddock is an international species, freely and routinely crossing the Hague Line, which demarcates the boundary between the United States and Canadian portions of Georges Bank. In order to ensure its sustainability, the United States and Canada manage this stock bilaterally, with US and Canadian scientists estimating the size of the stock and setting sustainable catch levels. But differences in management have led to far different outcomes.

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For years, US haddock fishermen have caught only a tiny fraction of their quota. From 2004 through 2011, they landed an average of 11 percent of their share, equating to only 16 million pounds of the 150 million pounds allowed over that period. But Canadian fishermen have been far more successful. Although they fish the same haddock stock as their American counterparts, Canadians land a much higher percentage of their quota. From 2004 through 2011, they landed 240 million pounds of the 260 million pounds allocated, totaling 93 percent of their share of the haddock quota.

What accounts for the difference? During this period American fishermen have been handicapped by rules on minimum fish sizes and minimum net mesh sizes (the gaps in the fishing net that determine what size fish can be caught) that are more restrictive than those to which their northern neighbors are subject. Studies indicate the US mesh size retains less than 40 percent of the legal sized fish that enter the net. Canadian fishermen use a more efficient mesh size that retains nearly 90 percent.

Making things worse, large sections of the US portion of Georges Bank have been closed since 1994. Originally intended to control the US haddock catch indirectly by limiting access, the closures have largely outlived their original purpose now that the catch is directly controlled under a quota system. Yet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association continues to deny entry to these historical haddock grounds even as Canadian fishermen continue to haul record catches of haddock.

Simply put, Canadian fishermen have greater opportunities to catch more fish with less effort than those operating in the United States.

Flexible and responsive management has been central to the Canadian haddock fishery’s success. The country’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proven to be quick in addressing the needs and concerns of Canadian fishermen, and open to new and innovative management ideas. For example, based on feedback from Canadian fishermen, the DFO recently instituted a pilot program that allowed fishermen to use an alternative mesh configuration believed to be more efficient in catching haddock. The DFO will study the results, and possibly make more permanent changes based on their conclusions.

Comparing the performance of Canadian and US fishermen, it’s easy to see how we’ve squandered a great opportunity. Showing greater flexibility and a willingness to experiment with alternatives based on the industry’s concerns can finally let fishermen catch what they are allowed to fish. This can include both simple measures, such as adjusting mesh sizes to be more in line with the more efficient Canadian standards, and long-overdue ones, like finally reopening closed haddock grounds in Georges Bank. A better, more cooperative relationship is the only way to ensure that the fishery can reach its full potential.

The haddock fishery is just one example of how current regulations are failing our fishermen. Being prevented from catching the full quota of a sustainably managed species unnecessarily burdens the fleet, costing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue. We know from the dramatically different Canadian experience that this is not an inevitable outcome, and that a better working relationship between fishermen and NOAA is in everyone’s interest.

This isn’t a radical proposal. It’s how fisheries management should work.

Richie Canastra is co-owner of the seafood auctions in New Bedford and Gloucester. Vito Giacalone is policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. Jimmy Odlin is general manager of Atlantic Trawlers Fishing and a former member of the New England Fishery Management Council.
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