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February 09, 2011

Fishing for Irony

Ted Venker is Conservation Director of the Coastal Conservation Association

They say that fishing is the world's second oldest occupation, so it is likely there have been more ironic events in its long, storied history, but the recent letter from Massachusetts's Governor Deval Patrick to President Obama must rank near the top of the list.

For those of you who missed it, Gov. Patrick expressed his "extraordinary frustration" with the lack of responsiveness the Commonwealth has experienced with the U.S. Department of Commerce and its agencies on the challenges facing commercial fishermen in Massachusetts. The Governor is upset with the severe regulations that have been placed on his hard-working commercial fishing community and the effect it is having on the state's economy.

To back up his arguments, Gov. Patrick cited economic statistics to demonstrate commercial fishing's vital role in Massachusetts's history and economy. The industry, he said, employs approximately 80,000 people in fisheries and related shore side businesses, and generates $4.4 billion in sales. Those figures are slightly suspect - using the federal economic impact model puts the commercial fishery economic impact of Massachusetts at $416.9 million in landed value, producing $1.9 billion in total sales and 35,609 jobs. The additional jobs and dollars come from the retail sector involved with importing seafood that is not even from the State of Massachusetts. But let's play along.

There is no doubt that commercial fishing is a huge part of Massachusetts's culture. Anyone who has read "Cod" by Mark Kurlansky will appreciate how fishermen essentially built the state. There is a reason a wooden replica of a cod has hung in the Massachusetts's statehouse.

Conversely, anyone who has read "Cod" will also be familiar with the ironic part of this story. In "building" the state of Massachusetts, commercial fishing also proceeded to essentially destroy what was once some of the most prolific, profitable fishing grounds in the world. Serial, rampant commercial overfishing reduced stocks to mere shadows of their former productivity, and there are doubts whether cod will ever return to its former abundance. Among other hurdles, the nooks and crannies in the rocks of the ocean bottom that served as cod habitat have been smashed flat by decades of rock-hopper trawls, creating the possibility that cod simply can't come back.

The signs that groundfish stocks were in serious trouble have been apparent for decades, but every time anyone attempted to rein in commercial fishing, the howl and cry from the fishing industry was enough to beat it back. Management plans that had no real chance of success were adopted again and again in response to enormous political pressure. Pressure not unlike the current letter from Gov. Patrick to President Obama.

It became apparent to powerful groups in the environmental community that managers were in an impossible situation when it came to Northeast fisheries. There was no way to effectively manage those stocks if it meant impinging on such a vital and revered cog in the region's economy. So in 2006, those groups acted. In an effort to directly address the chronic problems in the Northeast, certain provisions were incorporated into the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the overarching federal law that manages the nation's fisheries.

Those provisions required Annual Catch Limits (ACLs), Accountability Measures (AMs), and an end to all overfishing by a date certain (2010). They were heavily promoted by environmental groups, some of which are expending enormous amounts of time and resources on oceans programs. Those provisions were directly aimed at installing some backbone to manage New England's disastrous commercial groundfish fisheries.

Any attempt to end overfishing is generally appealing to a conservationist, but the ramifications of those provisions on the recreational sector were not truly appreciated or even understood at the time. Over the past few years, it has become painfully apparent to anyone associated with marine recreational fisheries that the federal agency in charge of managing those fisheries - NOAA Fisheries (formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service, formerly the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries) - has not the science or data or even the interest to properly manage recreational fisheries to the requirements of those provisions.  The terrestrial model of wildlife management that has been applied so successfully to ducks, geese, turkey, deer, elk, bass, etc, is nowhere to be found in the nation's oceans.

Because NOAA Fisheries has failed to collect the required data and science, it has a very limited ability to properly manage recreational fisheries. Nonetheless, the provisions that were aimed directly at New England's commercial groundfish disaster are now being applied to ALL fisheries in ALL other regions, including highly valuable recreational fisheries. The most dramatic examples can be found in the South Atlantic where fishery after fishery is being impacted to comply with the letter of the law. In one case, black sea bass, which hasn't had a full assessment in 10 years, is being closed down. Dolphin, wahoo and cobia have never even had an assessment and there are no indications of trouble, but dramatic reductions are on the table as an ultra-conservative way to comply with the provision to end overfishing.

The painfully ironic part to this whole sordid tale is that while Gov. Patrick tries to roll back the New England provisions to preserve New England commercial fishermen, those same provisions are wreaking havoc in Florida, for example, where recreational fishing expenditures dwarf the vaunted economic might of the Massachusetts commercial sector. In Florida, recreational expenditures are calculated at $17.6 billion and support $15.1 billion in sales and 138,754 jobs. Even in Massachusetts, recreational anglers are not an insignificant part of the economic picture, spending $817.6 million dollars on trip and annual expenditures, supporting $850.5 million in sales and supporting 6,446 jobs.

There is a chance that Gov. Patrick, in order to preserve the commercial sector that decimated the stocks in the first place, will find some success. Like so many before him, he may actually be able to apply the same political pressure that provoked those provisions in Magnuson so that his fishing industry can keep fishing. That would be truly ironic, since recreational fisheries that are far more valuable to the country are being penalized and discouraged by the laws that were created to correct the sins of the commercial sector.

Sadly, there are not many indications that anyone in federal fisheries management is serious about changing the way this country elects to manage its marine resources either. 

Gov. Patrick is right to express his "extraordinary frustration" with federal fisheries management. Ironically enough, I'm frustrated, too.