Monday, August 27, 2007

New England fishermen are victims of their own success

My last grouchy words about New England fishing touched a few nerves with readers. Now that I'm out of Boston (after only 19 hours), and safely ensconced at an undisclosed location in Washington DC, I daresay more.

I know passions run high on cod in New England. My good friends, if we can't speak frankly with each other, how will we ever move forward? In that spirit let us go on, with the immortal words of Clint Eastwood as a benediction: "for what we are about to recieve, may we be truly grateful."

What is the essential truth of fishing in New England? Grizzled men in sou'westers gritting their teeth while tub trawling in a gale? Or a subsidy-bloated fleet dependent on overfishing and reliant on it's ability to bully government scientists and managers into allowing more overfishing?

Fishermen in New England are victims of their own success. They won generous government subsidies in the 1970s and 1980s, and had a spending spree at the boatyard and gear supply shops. Then they caught all of the cod while maintaining an official fishery goal of minimizing government interference in fishing until 1994. Overfishing all the while. How did they do it? Charisma, political muscle, and crocodile tears.

The result? Twenty-five years in a row of cod overfishing in New England, severely depleted fish, a collapsing industry, crumbling infrastructure, troubled fishing communities, and a persistent plea not to restrict fishing any further. One year (1994), fishermen caught over 70% of the cod that were in the water off New England. You don't need to be a fishery scientist to smell a rat in killing that many fish.

We're several years into the latest cod rebuilding plan, WE'RE STILL OVERFISHING COD, and there's no recovery in sight. Cod remain flatlined near record lows that were viewed as catastrophic in 1994. Now, the baseline has shifted and that depletion looks normal.

Is there a plan to rebuild? Yes, there is, but it's the fourth rebuilding plan. Amendment 5 was the first in 1994, then Amendment 7 in 1996, then Amendment 9 in 1999, then Amendment 13 in 2004. That's four strikes. Three strikes and you're out, unless you're doing fishery management in New England. Note the graph below, which dates from 2004, just before New England missed badly on the fourth big swing.

Ugh. I don't usually inflict graphs on you, but this one is important. The stars in the graph are the promised "rebuilding" goals for each of the first 3 rebuilding plans. They promised success after five years. Can you spell "pie in the sky?" Note that there is another star waiting to be put on this graph. Somehow I just can't bring myself to update this tragic tale of fishing gone sour.

This story looks as bad as the proverbial communist "five year plans" for economic miracles that we learned to laugh at as schoolchildren. Every kid in New England should be learning this story.

Blogfish has been consistent in pointing out these problems, witness:

Cod overfishing spawns cod nursery ideas

Massachusetts fishery disaster: too much of a good thing

Requiem for the Grand Banks

The tragedy of overfishing in New England

Do we have the courage to write a new chapter for cod in New England? I have a feeling that step one is admitting that we have a problem.

On the positive side, I had a beautiful view of the moon rising over NY city as I flew from Boston to DC. And I had a window/aisle seat on a nice little American Eagle jet so I experienced no bycatch or habitat damage from neighbors.

My apologies to the rest of the Best Practices Working Group still plugging away in Boston. Hope it's going well, and sorry for ducking out early.


Kevin Zelnio said...

Going in for the kill man! I couldn't agree with you more. The latest Naked Scientist podcast talks a bit about predation on juvenile cod by predators released from pressure by the adult cod that used to feed on them. To add synergistically to the damage done by fishing...

But the real question is why aren't regulations enforced? Why has the government caved in to the fishing lobby so much? In terms of numbers of people, or percent of the working force contributing to the fishing industry, are they a significant force to be reckoned with? I suppose the economic impact of fishing is what matters, i.e. people love seafood (like me).

Did the retraining program in Canada ever work out? Where they paid for retraining of fishermen into other professions?

El Pescador said...

keep telling it like you see it mark. i believe in the power of one.