We're killing the oceans

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 18, 2009

The gathering was convened to express displeasure with some significant new changes under consideration: a new regulation scheme that's supported by groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, but opposed by many fishermen nervous about the potential impact on their livelihood.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the NOAA division charged with stewarding sustainable fisheries, has indicated plans to move to a "catch shares" system, starting on May 1, in an effort to counter falling fish stocks.

Under these new rules, boats could elect to join so-called sectors, with each vessel allotted a quota of fish — based on their past catches — but with the stipulation that the sector can't surpass its combined quota, lest it be shut down. Boats aren't required to sign on to the system, however those that don't can plan on being allowed far fewer days at sea than they're already afforded (just 39 in most cases).

Supporters say they're the last best hope to forestall severe depletion — and keep the industry afloat, arguing that they'll encourage conservation, since the more that fish populations rebound, the more everyone will eventually get to catch.

Patricia Fiorelli, public-affairs officer with the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), hopes the system will "be able to improve the likelihood that fishermen will survive while we're in a stock-rebuilding mode."

Glen Libby, a groundfisherman based out of Port Clyde, Maine, who's also chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen's Cooperative and a member of the NEFMC, argues that the catch-shares system will provide for sustainability and, hopefully, profitability.

"We've never had the ability to do our own processing and marketing and things like that," he says of his work for the Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Maine's first community-supported fishery. "If we could just build our market up enough, then we could be in pretty good shape."

"It's a new thing," he concedes. "People are usually nervous when there's something new coming along. But they weren't really satisfied with what we had before, either, so I don't know if this will be better or worse, but something had to be done."

Skeptics of catch shares fear the new rules will ultimately lead — as US Representative Barney Frank wrote recently in a letter to Lubchenco — to the "real threat of significant consolidation," putting many fishermen out of work as corporations swoop in to reap the spoils.

"The problem," says Brian Rothschild, professor of Marine Science at UMass Dartmouth, is that "some people will be limited out. Experience has shown that catch shares reduce the fleet, they reduce the number of fishermen, and the people who have been forced out have nowhere to go. The other side of it is those that are limited in, they can stand to make tremendous profits."

But for Libby, the sector system is "the best out of a lot of bad options. We have to meet the catch levels that are laid out by the law. A lot of guys wish it could go back to the way it was. But it just can't. We're not seeing a lot of fish up here — they're just not there."

Change and hope
Meanwhile, for all the hard work that's being done to remedy overfishing, it's climate change that could prove to be even more of an existential threat to the world's oceans.

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