Fishermen must be allowed to fish

By U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe | May 19, 2010

Washington, D.C. — Last year, Maine’s world-class fishermen and their counterparts from around New England were able to land only 27 percent of the total allowable catch, costing our coastal economies over a half a billion dollars.

This inability to meet their quota had nothing to do with their skill at their chosen profession. Rather, it was due to increasingly restrictive harvest limits based on woefully outdated and insufficient scientific data. Because different species of groundfish so often school together, they must be managed as a collective, meaning fishermen are constrained by the least-healthy population — the lowest common denominator.

On May 1, the groundfishery began operating under a new and controversial management structure known as “sectors.” Simultaneously, fishermen are now being forced to adhere to catch limits for some species that have been reduced by as much as 75 percent from the 2009 harvest levels.

Maine has 5,500 miles of coastline, and a groundfishing fleet that now consists of just 70 boats — one boat for each 80 miles of shore. While I hope the transition to sector management will ultimately prove successful in the effort to rebuild the economic and biological diversity of the fishery, the reality is that with the current restrictions the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration has imposed, there is no way the system will be able to function as it has been designed.

In fact, some fishermen have told me they caught more of one species, pollock, in a single tow last year than they have been allocated for the entire 2010 season.

Frankly, it is preposterous to expect our fishermen to make a living when the first time they dip their nets in the water could shut down their entire sector for the year. Without change to this year’s draconian catch limits, 2010 will be even less profitable and efficient than the lean years our fishing communities have so ably weathered in recent years.

For too long, the National Marine Fisheries Service has turned a blind eye to New England’s coastal economy, ignoring its legislative mandate to balance ending overfishing and minimizing adverse economic impacts on fishing communities. The simple truth is that NMFS must increase catch limits on the "choke stocks" that are otherwise sure to close down this fishery prematurely. 

As ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmospheres, Fisheries and Coast Guard, I recently joined a dozen other members of the New England congressional delegation in a meeting with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to discuss the future of the New England groundfishery.

Specifically, my colleagues and I urged Locke, along with Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, and Eric Schwaab, director of NMFS, to exercise the secretarial authority granted by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and implement emergency regulations to increase the 2010 annual catch limits for certain fish stocks in the groundfishery.

I find it patently unacceptable that despite the admissions of NMFS’s own scientists that their data was insufficient to make policy recommendations for some stocks, other than a previously announced commitment to revisit the catch limit for pollock, we did not receive any assurances during our meeting that other choke stocks would be addressed.

Fishermen deserve more than lip-service when their livelihoods are at stake.

Unfortunately, as we have experienced with altogether too much clarity in last month’s closing of America’s last sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor, scientific uncertainty costs jobs. In that case, a 40 percent reduction in catch limits for herring — a fish stock that is not overfished — directly resulted in the loss of 130 jobs in an economically depressed region of our state. We cannot sit idly by, shrugging our shoulders and guessing at catch limits while hard-working Americans are forced to pay for our ignorance with their livelihoods.

That is precisely why I have taken numerous steps to encourage the administration and my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to take immediate steps to dedicate an additional $47 million to NOAA’s fisheries science programs.

We know the fish stocks are rebuilding, but because our catch limits are set using data that is several years old, our fishermen are left behind by the growth curve. Better data is more likely to produce better stock assessments and fewer question marks. In turn, this will allow the agency to increase catch limits and lead to greater profitability for the hard-working men and women in our coastal communities.

In our meeting, the secretary and Dr. Lubchenco lent their support to these efforts, and suggested financial assistance could be on the way for the industry if catch limits are not increased.

I am well aware that the best thing for our coastal communities is more jobs, not more handouts, and that is my No. 1 priority. Yet, in pushing for more access to the fish while keeping fish stocks on a rebuilding trajectory, we must not allow overfishing.

What we must do is increase catch limits within the uncertainty buffer between the current catch limit and the overfishing level, ensure those limits are adhered to, and give this industry a chance to survive the transition to this new management system so we can collectively work to save America’s first fishery.

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