Things are much different now. Last fall, the US Department of Commerce declared the northeastern groundfishery a federal economic disaster. Where local groundfishermen used to bring in tens of millions of pounds of Atlantic cod per year, their catch has dwindled to hundreds of thousands of pounds. And according to the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association: "In 1996, 188 vessels in the state of Maine took at least one fishing trip targeting groundfish. By 2010 this number had declined to only 52 vessels that left the shore to catch what was once the foundation of Maine's fishing economy."

"We're just headed . . . to oblivion," NOAA's Northeast regional administrator John Bullard told the New York Times in February. "There's certainly reason for pessimism . . . We all have to change at some points in our careers, and fishermen are no different. So change may be the order of the day."

Indeed, several changes have already been put in place, and more are on the horizon.

DWINDLING LANDINGS At the Portland Fish Exchange, and elsewhere.

In 2010, for example, the New England Fishery Management Council established a new groundfish management program "that gives fishermen a more direct role in making decisions about when, where, and how to fish," explains NEFMC public affairs officer Patricia Fiorelli. In this system, groups of fishermen establish themselves as sectors, akin to a harvesting cooperative, "that allocates an amount fishing privileges to its members, based on the amount of fish or quota each member brings to his or her group."

The idea behind sector management is that giving more responsibility and authority to fishermen allows more intuitive and efficient fishing practices to emerge as alternatives to old-school, ineffective controls such as limiting days-at-sea or fishing areas.

It's too soon to tell, less than three years in, how the sector strategy is affecting local groundfishermen or fish stocks. There are some indications that sector management encourages consolidation, with bigger fishing operations essentially buying out smaller ones. There's also widespread concern about a provision requiring fishermen to cover the costs of at-sea monitoring.

"Even without the drastic reductions in catch limits, our fishermen cannot feasibly afford their expected share of at-sea monitors, and it is vital that NOAA provide full funding to cover these costs," reads a letter sent to Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank on February 7, signed by all four members of Maine's congressional delegation.

This display of interest and pressure from prominent Maine politicians (which has already resulted in one concrete concession: New England groundfishing vessels that did not catch their full share last year will be allowed to carry over a portion of that quota into 2013) is a welcome development, says Nick Battista, marine programs director at the Island Institute in Rockland.

"The fact that the Maine delegation...led this effort is huge and it means they're paying attention to this issue," he says.

The same letter called on NOAA to "invest in more frequent and improved stock assessments to help NOAA Fisheries and the Council . . . investigate the impacts of changing ocean temperatures, species interactions, and stock structure."

This gets to the meat of the matter: Science.

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  Topics: News Features , New England, fishing, New England Fishery Management Council
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