What is happening in the waters of the Northeast — the disappearance of cod, the warming of the ocean, and the gradual decline of a way of life that has been a staple of our economy and culture for centuries — is a national disaster, and it needs a national response. There is no silver bullet, but one critical step above all others can put the New England groundfishery on the path to recovery: Congress and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration must move immediately to monitor every boat at sea.
The recent arrest of New Bedford fishing boat owner and wholesaler Carlos Rafael, for allegedly evading federal fishing quotas, clearly indicates the need to protect honest fishermen, and our fish species, with better monitoring.
Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. NOAA is planning to reduce the number of observers when they are needed most, so that only 10 percent of boats will carry an observer on board. This action, driven by conflict over whether fishermen should pay for the monitoring program, will move the fishery in the wrong direction.
My interest in saving fishing in New England is both personal and professional. As a Gorton, I am the descendant of people who made their livelihoods at sea, catching and selling cod for generations. Slade Gorton & Co. is headquartered in Boston. As a former US senator from Washington state, I worked countless hours on complex policy questions meant to help the fishing industry.
Full-fleet monitoring is needed to end the widespread distrust of NOAA’s scientific estimates. This distrust is based on a lack of information on what is happening to fish stocks and what is occurring on the boats that are fishing — what they are catching, and what is being discarded dead back into the sea. Accurate monitoring of the entire fleet would answer these questions, and fishermen could be confident there is a level playing field. But NOAA has chosen the opposite direction: monitoring at a level insufficient for science, and clearly of no protection against the discarding of tons of fish.
The current monitoring program — putting human observers on a small percent of boats — is expensive, unpopular with fishermen, and dangerous for observers. And handing fishermen the bill for those trips, as NOAA started doing last month, could push even more cash-strapped fishing families toward bankruptcy.
There is an effective solution: Install electronic monitors on every groundfish boat, and provide regulators and scientists with the comprehensive information they desperately need to make smart decisions about how to save this national treasure.
Congress has been working to appropriate $10 million for electronic monitoring programs nationwide, and has directed NOAA in New England to begin implementing electronic monitoring by May.
NOAA says it will soon equip a small number of boats with cameras in yet another pilot program — that’s something, but not enough. All New England’s fishing boats need to be equipped with cameras now. The alternative — continuing to operate in the dark, resigned to guesswork about what is happening in our waters — is not acceptable.
Slade Gorton, a former US senator from Washington state, is counsel at K&L Gates, which represents fishing and conservation interests.