2012-02-16 / News

Clash between scientists, fishermen continues to boil over


The battle over United States fisheries management is one of the most contentious issues ever seen on these shores. The debate pits government scientists against commercial fishermen and the answers that are forthcoming depend very much on whom you are talking to.

Given its location and dependence on the fishery, the outcome of this battle will have a profound effect on the economy of Rhode Island.

In the mid-1970s, the Magnuson Stevens Act became the law that governs all U.S. fishing. Five years ago that act was reauthorized by then-President George W. Bush. At that time language was inserted that would require each fishery to have catch limits in place by the end of 2011. The language was crafted by a bipartisan coalition of political, environmental, scientific and fishing industry interests.

The responsibility for instituting the restrictions fell to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While NOAA did not meet the goal of having the limits in place by the end of last year, they were successful in placing limits on 40 of 46 U.S. fisheries, and they expect to have the balance in place before the fishing season begins this year.

“It’s something that’s arguably first in the world,” Eric Schwaab of the NOAA told the Washington Post. “It’s a huge accomplishment for the country.”

Of course not everyone agrees with Schwaab’s assessment. The argument comes down, as it always does, to which side has the correct data, with scientists on one side pitted against the fishermen who are out there every day living the conditions.

Christopher Brown is the president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association. According to Brown, the science behind the government regulations is essentially sound, but the reality on the water is somewhat different.

“Fundamentally sound science has you only removing a certain percentage of the fish so that hopefully you can grow the stock larger and reap larger rewards going forward,” Brown said. “That’s the intent of the law. It is sound logic. It’s taken a long time for us to get to that point. It’s been a political football for the last 25 years.”

Unfortunately, according to Brown, the imposition of the new limits comes during a deep recession, and affects an industry that is fossil fuel dependent. “It’s almost like a perfect storm of events,” Brown said.

Climate change is a key factor in the rapidly changing ocean environment. “If you believe in climate change, one of the predictable outcomes is loss of systemic productivity,” Brown said. “So your oceans may become less productive. Your farms and your fields may become less productive.”

The outcome of the ongoing discussions about fisheries management has broad implications for the future of our nation. According to Brown, it is a matter of national food security. He says that if we look at the Atlantic Ocean as a strategic protein reserve, we will be inclined to protect it and preserve it so that we can have huge sums of protein at our disposal at a moment’s notice in the event of a food emergency – such as a widespread outbreak of mad cow disease or some other event affecting the food chain.

Brown said that in dealing with any natural resource you can only take so much, unless your intent is to eradicate it. You have to leave so much in the water in hopes that the stock will remain in a healthy condition. “Unfortunately, it has taken 30 years to get to a point where we finally have some sound management in effect,” he said. “In that time the ocean has become tremendously imbalanced.”

The overriding problem is the huge increase in undesirable species like dogfish and skates. The dogfish are a particular problem since they prey on juvenile codfish. “We created a void by catching a lot of cod and a lot of haddock over the last 30 years,” Brown said. “Nature abhors a vacuum and it filled that vacuum with undesirable species. Now we have to try to bring the ocean back into some sort of a balance. We spent the last 100 years trying to save the Earth from the hands of man. The reality is in the next 100 years we’re going to have to save man from the hands of Earth. We’re going to have to be smarter than we ever have been. Our science is going to have to be better than it ever has been.”

Brown said he has had the good fortune of going to sea almost every day for the last 32 years, and fishes within 10 miles of Block Island. “I can tell when there have been a lot of fish and when there haven’t been a lot of fish,” he said. “It’s in my interest to make the science right. I’m working with the government trying to fix things.”

Brown thinks that the Rhode Island commercial fishing fleet will not be as hard hit as some others due to certain geographical advantages. “Rhode Island is at the northern end of all the southern species, and at the southern end of all the northern species,” he said. “We have a lot of stocks that are doing pretty well. Overall the Rhode Island fleet is going to fare better than a fleet of vessels that are more ground fish dependent, north of us.”

Brown finds room for optimism based on the fact that there is a movement afoot to rely more on industry data. “The science isn’t necessarily at fault, it’s the data,” he said. “It’s not industry-generated or fishery-dependent data. We’re in for a bumpy ride but the good news is that when you get the science right, and you get the management that’s based on the science right, fish stocks can recover in two or three years.”

Not everyone in the fishing industry is quite as optimistic as Brown however. Rich Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, is firmly opposed to the new regulations, and places the blame for the current state of the commercial fishing industry squarely at the feet of the Obama administration – in particular, the president’s appointment of Dr. Jane Lubchenco as NOAA administrator.

“The idea that this started with the Bush administration and is continuing on with the Obama administration couldn’t be further from the truth,” Fuka said. In Fuka’s view, Lubchenco has brought a “very far left liberal ideology” to her job at NOAA. Fuka claims that the Bush Administration “never even considered fisheries regulation.”

According to Fuka, numerous New England politicians, including democrats like U.S. Sen. John Kerry and U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, have worked to improve the lot of commercial fishermen but their efforts to change the policy of the Obama administration have been unsuccessful.

“The Bush administration wasn’t looking to create a new fisheries management style,” Fuka said. “That wasn’t on the table back then.” Instead, Fuka said, the new language inserted into the reauthorization of Magnuson- Stevens was meant to prevent the annihilation of species and not to impose onerous new regulations on commercial fishermen.

“We can make Magnuson-Stevens work for the fishing community, but the Obama administration will not allow Dr. Jane Lubchenco to do that,” Fuka said. “The problem is that the limits trigger a multispecies collapse.”

He continued: “The real stories are the families that have fallen prey to foreclosure, the boats that have gone up for auction, the fish houses that have closed, and the businesses that have closed. You cannot imagine how complex and how bad this situation is.”

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island’s 1st District representative, also stood up for local fishermen. “Rhode Island’s oceans and fishermen have long been pillars of our state’s economy and way of life,” he said. “We need to have a management system that does not hinder the ability of Rhode Islanders to succeed in the industry, but also protects the longterm health of our fisheries.

“Finding this balance will continue to require transparency, collaboration and clear lines of communication, particularly as it relates to the science that informs stock assessments and evaluations of the health of our fisheries. At the same time, we must make certain that small fishing businesses have access to the capital, financial products, and technical assistance that will help sustain them as fishery management continues to evolve.”

“What I see is a total imbalance of nature caused by micromanaging of individual species,” said Christopher Luytens, a veteran Rhode Island lobsterman from Jamestown. “All I know is what I see in my traps. And what I see in my traps is an overabundance of fish.”

He continued: “I’ve been fishing for 35 years as a trap fisherman, and I still don’t know what’s going on. How could fishery scientists possibly know?”

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