Building a bridge
The abrupt about-face on the part of NOAA and the Commerce Department as we were going to press with this issue in mid-March was a huge step forward for fishermen who are fighting to preserve their industry.
The focus of the teleconference was excessive fines against components of the New England fishing industry. NOAA director Jane Lubchenco and outgoing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced a new matrix for penalties that will apply to the industry as a whole, rather than by region.
This is a step in the right direction, and I can only hope it leads to NOAA's taking a look at how to better manage and implement catch shares.
From everything I hear, U.S. fishermen do not believe they can fight the move toward catch shares interminably. But the message we need to send as an industry is that fishermen are fighting for a system that allows them to keep working. The best way to design a system that works is to bring in fishermen to help craft it.
Back-room deals and concessions to powerful lobbying interests are part of politics, and, unfortunately, the management of fishing is a political game. The days of scraping together your pennies to buy a boat and see what you can catch are over.
Anyone who has ever tried to read the code of federal regulations knows that.
I hear supporters touting catch shares as a market-based system, as if that solves all of the problems in the fishery. If we didn't construct incentives and concessions for small businesses in this country, we wouldn't have any, or they wouldn't last very long. And yet, anyone who has worked in a corporate or government office knows that the best ideas come not from conference-room meetings but from innovators in the field. This has been the case in fishing, as well. Some of the greatest leaps forward in fishing gear that reduces bycatch and habitat impacts have come from fishermen.
Maybe I'm being naïve, but I feel the tide is turning for fishermen, and I believe that's because of the energy that remains in the industry. People still want wild local fish, and there is still money to be made in fishing. Our goal now should be to devise ways to support small-boat fishermen.
In Maine, one example is a state-run permit bank that allows small-boat fishermen to lease quota for choke species. The system is far from perfect, but it's a start.
The West Coast groundfish trawl fleet is suffering from the same low catch rates that hamstrung the Northeast fleet in its first year under catch shares. You can tout the bump in revenue and reduced bycatch (and these are highlights of the system), but if you ignore the damage that's occurring in historical fishing communities and the loss of infrastructure to support the fleets, you're only papering over the cracks.
NMFS needs to shift its focus from disseminating a management tool that is barely working to fine-tuning catch shares where they are already in place and building a bridge to the future for the small boat owners.
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