"The largest overall issue is that there is not a lot of faith in the surveys and assessments," says Saving Seafood's Vanasse, pointing to all sorts of blemishes on NOAA's record. (To this end, the Inspector General of the US Commerce Department is currently undertaking a several-phase investigation of fisheries rulemaking; the first report uncovered shoddy record-keeping, enforcement, and financial disclosures on the part of NOAA.)
For one thing, "it's just really tough to count fish in the ocean and do it accurately," Battista says. It's also difficult to quantify the effects of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification on fish populations. "Decisions have been made on the best science we have," he says. "But the science isn't good enough to answer the questions we have." It's important to realize that today's struggling fish stocks are not necessarily the result of so-called "overfishing" — at this point, the fish aren't even there to be over-caught. Many fishermen cannot even meet their (low) quotas. There's more to this problem, they say, than greedy fishermen.
"We need to start thinking about things differently," offers Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, which advocates for small-vessel fishermen and operates the Port Clyde Community Groundfish Sector. He supports a shift away from single-species management and toward ecosystem-based management, which considers everything from climate change to fish biology to commercial practices. As he puts it: "It's not the cuts that are going to hurt us, it's not having fish in the water that's going to hurt us."
Even Fiorelli, of the New England Fishery Management Council, acknowledges that "catch limits must . . . take into account all of the uncertainties in the ecosystem: changing temperatures, ecological interactions, with other species . . . But while it is easy to state this, it is extremely complex and difficult to do. The ocean is a rapidly changing environment and we are struggling to understand its potential and limitations."
TRY SOMETHING NEW
While better science and better gear might help (some experts work exclusively on designing fishing equipment and practices that help fishermen save money and be more selective in their harvests), the outlook remains grim for groundfishermen.
You may be wondering: Should I give up eating groundfish entirely? The answer, according to the experts, is a resounding No.
"At the end of the day, we still need to make sure that the general public is eating and prioritizing locally caught fish," Martens says, encouraging seafood lovers to "try something new" such as redfish or pollock, which are currently abundant off Maine's coast.
By developing markets for these less popular species, we can help fishermen get better prices for their fish. And this is certainly in line with Battista's long-term goal of oceanic equilibrium, which he thinks will come from "making decisions based on the future. The more fish we catch now, the less economic pain there is, but the more risk there is of not having a fishery in the future. It's really tough to balance that."