In May of 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund officially saw their new Limited Access Privilege Programs launched in New England’s groundfishery with the support and encouragement of NOAA Fisheries. Two years later, the Gulf of Maine (GOM) cod stock appears to have been virtually wiped out by the large-scale commercial fleet.
According to the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), unless the U.S. Senate follows action approved by the House of Representatives on May 8th and also votes to stop funding of this controversial new fisheries scheme, the spread of catch shares in regional finfish management could lead to devastating consequences in localized coastal fisheries in other regions as well. (To view the recent House debate on catch shares watch the video below.)
The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) convened its Recreational Advisory Panel in mid-May for discussions about the GOM fishery, learning first-hand how the decimation of local cod stocks is crippling the recreational charter and headboat fishing fleet. According to Capt. Barry Gibson, RFA’s New England director and chairman of the NEFMC’s Recreational Advisory Panel, the new sector management program in New England and its Limited Access Privilege Programs (catch shares) could ultimately represent the end of much of the charter and party boat industry from Maine to Massachusetts.
“This is perhaps the most troubling issue I have had to deal with in my 25 years of federal fishery management,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the recreational sector has continually cut back on its annual harvest of GOM cod, with seasons shortened by 5-1/2 months and a drop in bag limit to just nine fish. He said that up until a month ago, the minimum fish size was 24 inches in length as compared to the commercial size limit of 22 inches.
“Provisions in the new sector management program for the commercial sector allow draggers of any size to come in to the Gulf of Maine and fish day and night, with no trip limits,” Gibson said, adding “boats as large as 90 feet drilled back and forth on Stellwagen Bank, just 30 miles offshore, all winter and spring, as many as 50 vessels at a time.”
“When the recreational season opened on April 16, the party and charter fleet found that there were few fish left to catch,” Gibson added, explaining how captains fishing 10-hour trips with six anglers aboard were lucky to bring home a few dozen small cod. “An informal poll I conducted among Massachusetts’ skippers at the RAP meeting indicated that the average recreational catch was down by 70%.” Because of the lack of fish, local captains revealed that recreational charters were cancelling trips right and left as word got out.
Gibson said the fishing has improved in the past several weeks since many of the draggers have moved off the Stellwagen grounds, but there is a tremendous amount of concern that they’ll be back.
“What took years to rebuild to phenomenal fishing has been destroyed in two years by catch shares,” said Capt. Dave Waldrip of Rockland, MA, at the meeting.
“Previously, under the days at sea system, small-boat commercial and party and charter fishermen were able to share this area,” said Capt. Ralph Pratt of Canton, MA. “Now it appears that sacrifices made by these fishermen have been in vain.”
“Apparently, those who championed the catch share system never thought about the consequences to the recreational sector,” Gibson noted, while adding “if big Georges Bank draggers were able to purchase shares of Gulf of Maine cod, where did folks think these vessels would fish?”
RFA executive director Jim Donofrio laid the blame directly on non-government environmental organizations (ENGO) including Environmental Defense Fund who have steamrolled this privatization system through the council process. “Four-hundred years of sustainable fishery management by fishermen, wiped out in under 24 months by black-tie environmentalists with fancy fellowships and environmental degrees,” Donofrio said.
“The ENGO’s have received a lot of cover for their actions from the environmental press, I’m just wondering when the media is going to pick up on this story of how a whole segment of our recreational industry was completely wiped out by commercial catch shares,” he added.
Donofrio said he and several RFA allies have been criticized for leaving brokered discussions with ENGOs going back to the late 90’s, refusing to return to the bargaining table. “We’ve said all along that Environmental Defense Fund and Pew Environment Group should not be trusted. They have been completely disingenuous in their efforts to use marine reserves and catch shares to control fishermen,” Donofrio said.
“Someday maybe the tackle and boating industry will wake up and understand why RFA has been so adamantly opposed to working with their lobbyists and friends in the environmental business community, especially given that their allocation schemes are proving to be just as bad for the fish as they are for our fishermen.”
Catch share proponents including paid advisors with Environmental Defense Fund and Pew Environment Group have spearheaded efforts to implement the catch share system in every fishery management region across the country. While ENGOs argue that catch shares are an important conservation tool, the dire situation in New England shows that rapid deployment of this new fisheries management scheme could prove to have a devastating negative impact on both fish stocks and the coastal fishing communities.
“Catch shares have damaged our sector,” said Capt. Steven James, president of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association. “They were not intended to impact the charter and recreational folks but it’s putting them out of business.” Capt. James said that the new catch share scheme has allowed offshore boats with offshore quota to come in and drag inshore areas with impunity. “This raises real questions about how these decisions are being made,” he said.
Under the previous open access fisheries management system, daily cod limits of 800 pounds a day in the GOM and 2,000 pounds on Georges Bank kept big boats offshore. “Now the big sector draggers can go 30 miles out to Stellwagen Bank and catch 30,000 or 40,000 pounds of cod or more. They no longer have to steam 160 miles to Georges Bank,” said Capt. Tom DePersia of Marshfield, MA. “They have ruined 20 years of conservation by other fishermen.”
Donofrio said he can’t see how the Senate could reasonably oppose the recent actions in the House to stop the spread of catch shares in light of the devastation that’s occurred in New England fisheries. “The House of Representatives voted in bipartisan fashion to support an amendment to stop funding of this catch shares implementation, and we are urging the Senate to support that action before our fishing industry is completely destroyed,” he said.
“The Environmental Defense Fund agenda to reduce the fishing fleet worked perfectly, by destroying an entire population of Gulf of Maine cod while bankrupting our recreational party and charter boat industry, and it’s up to the U.S. Senate to do what’s right,” Donofrio said.
Gibson said the Recreational Advisory Panel has asked the NEFMC to recommend to NOAA some type of emergency action, and to examine commercial catch data for this area. However, he also noted that alone might be too little, too late. “If enough spawning fish were wiped out, Gulf of Maine cod may be in far more trouble than we think.”