On April 24, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced ground fish regulations that included a prohibition on recreational possession of cod in the Gulf of Maine through at least April 30, 2016.
The impact of this announcement is that what I grew up calling “deep sea fishing” has collapsed. Party boat operators from the historic ports of Gloucester and Plymouth are reporting between 50% and 85% declines in business. Smaller charter boat operators across New England normally booked solid at this time of year are sailing once a week if they are lucky. Tackle manufacturers, bait shops and related businesses such as small coastal community hotels and convenience stores that relied on spring ground fishing to begin the season are on the brink of bankruptcy. Thousands of jobs have been lost and if we are to believe the reports from the commercial fleet that they are seeing a good year class of juvenile cod on the fishing grounds, this economic devastation may have been avoidable if cod stocks were allowed to rebuild when they first began to decline.
According to pretty much every reasonable view of the science involved, Gulf of Maine cod stocks took a nosedive years ago, and fishing needed to be reduced. Reasonable reductions back then may have allowed cod to rebuild, but something called “flexibility” was already included in the law that governs fishing throughout the waters of our nation (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act). To put it in plain language, flexibility is a loophole, which allows more fishing than is sustainable given a certain set of conditions, regardless of what best available science dictates. Under the current law, regulators were able to allow years of reduced but continued overfishing of cod before they had no other choice but to essentially end fishing for what was once the most famous fishery in the land.
What made this year’s regulations hit harder than normal reductions in recreational quotas was that along with this year’s closure of Gulf of Maine cod came a significantly reduced recreational bag limit of just three small haddock. Even though haddock allocations had recently tripled, the amount of cod recreational anglers catch while haddock fishing restricts haddock catch.
In the coming weeks, the US House of Representatives will be voting on legislation called H.R. 1335, which is a bill that will among other things reduce rebuilding requirements and increase the same type of flexibility that allowed the once sacred cod to be fished down to the point of constricting all recreational ground fishing and causing economic harm to many coastal New England communities.
Instead of moving away from archaic single species management and mandating the transition to broader ecosystem based management, H.R. 1335 will set fisheries management back decades by allowing even more overfishing and weakening requirements to rebuild fisheries that are on the decline.
Instead of addressing important issues such as protecting the forage base needed to support robust fisheries, H.R. 1335 will make it easier for industrial scale commercial operations to fish down the food chain.
Instead of continuing to improve stock assessment science and improving recreational and other fishing data collection, H.R. 1335 will limit stakeholder access to fisheries data collected and paid for by taxpayer dollars.
The US House of Representatives has a choice in the coming weeks. The members can reject H.R. 1335 and honor the sacred cod as an example of what must be prevented in management of our nation’s fisheries, or they can give up on the species that made New England and our nation’s fisheries famous. This voter sure hopes that at least the Massachusetts delegation still has some revolutionary spirit left. Our fishing communities and our oceans need leadership, not surrender.