2012-09-20 / News

Federal officials issue disaster declaration for local fishing

Groundfish stock has not returned to expected levels

The Magnuson-Stevens Act became law in 1976. Among the act’s goals were to ensure the optimal exploitation of coastal fisheries by the United States fishing industry. The act sought to achieve this end by consolidating control over territorial waters.

Eight regional councils were created to manage fish stocks. Since that time, the act has been amended several times, the most recent being in 2007, in an effort to conserve fishery resources and prevent overfishing of major stocks.

Last week the U.S. Department of Commerce, responding to a request from Gov. Lincoln Chafee, issued a disaster declaration under section 312 of the Magnuson- Stevens Act for the New England groundfish fishery.

“We have recently seen an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration among biologists and the fishing community, and we should not punish those hardworking fishermen who comply with regulations and play by the rules,” said Chafee.

The declaration was prompted by the dawning fact that fishing stocks have not returned to the levels that the government hoped for when restrictive fishing quotas were established in recent years. This is despite the fact that commercial fishermen have been abiding by the rules that were established.

Based on the declaration, Congress will now be able to provide emergency financial relief to fishermen affected by existing and upcoming cuts to quotas for important commercial stocks like cod, haddock and flounder. Those cuts, which are expected to be in place for the start of the next fishing season on May 1, 2013, could amount to as much as a 73 percent reduction in the fishing quota.

The new restrictions are expected to have a profoundly negative effect on the Rhode Island commercial fishing industry, which prompted Chafee to write to the Department of Commerce on Aug. 24. In his letter, Chafee acknowledged that while the state’s commercial fishery is diverse and not as dependent on groundfish as other New England states, groundfi sh remain a key component of the fishery.

According to Mark Gibson, deputy chief of marine fisheries for the state Department of Environmental Management, the declaration is only a first step that demonstrates that the U.S. Department of Commerce recognizes the severity of the situation.

“Despite our best efforts, rebuilding has not been achieved to the extent required under law,” said Gibson, whose office is located at Fort Wetherill. “There has been a declaration, but no money has been appropriated by Congress. There is no scope of work or design as to what would be done with that money.”

Gibson said that Congress would have to appropriate money for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and that the NOAA would have to determine how to administer the money. It could take the form of vessel buyouts, direct aid to fishermen, or a revolving loan fund.

According to Gibson, who represents the state of Rhode Island on the New England Marine Fisheries Council – one of the councils created under the Magnuson-Stevens Act – the council received a report earlier this year indicating that the rebuilding program was not achieving its desired results within the requirements of Magnuson Stevens. The council was forced to begin considering cuts to the catch limits for next year.

“I have seen all the science flowing through the council process, the council nail-biting on how to deal with this, and finally the council concluding that there wasn’t any way for us to avoid some draconian cuts,” he said.

Gibson added that the commercial fishing industry has followed the plan that has been put out based on the science of the day as it evolved. However, the science has changed, and Gibson said that the council has no choice but to respond to those changes. He pointed to the fact that fishermen were taking the number of fish that they were allowed, but that quota was based on an estimate of the total stock that was flawed. So fishermen ended up taking a greater percentage of the existing fish than was intended.

“It’s not anything you can blame fishermen on, but fishermen do catch and kill fish, and to the extent that they took fish out of the water that really weren’t there, they’re part of the issue, and they have to be part of the solution,” he said.

Despite the dire news, Gibson remains confident that the groundfi sh fishery can be rebuilt, particularly at Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, where the fish are not as affected by the warming of the water due to climate change. However, he said that southern New England may have longer term problems, particularly with species like summer flounder.

“I believe that science is not taking into account the climatechange effect,” Gibson said. “Fish are moving. We draw lines in the water saying this is where the stock lives. That’s not accurate anymore. They’ve moved. We’re not taking into account changing environmental conditions.”

Gibson said that the fishery is not in collapse. In fact, the fishery is on an upwards trajectory, but that trajectory is not steep enough to comply with the targets set forth in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, thus necessitating further cuts to fishing quotas. He cites climate change as the primary reason that the stock assessments are changing dramatically.

“We’re just starting to see direct evidence that the fish have moved,” Gibson said. “They’re moving to deeper water. There are more mid- Atlantic visitors coming into this bay now than resident fishes.”

Robb Roach is a charter captain for Kettlebottom Outfitters. He said that while the declaration affects the entire New England fishery, local conditions are not all that bad. In fact, he said that fishing locally for groundfish like pollock and cod has actually improved in recent years.

Roach points to the fact that while commercial fishermen in the United States are, for the most part, complying with regulations, the same cannot be said for fishermen in other countries, which results in the destruction of large numbers of migrating fish.

“Foreign countries have rules too, but nobody follows those rules. It’s a global problem.”

According to Roach, when he moved here in 1975 Jamestown was a commercial fishing community. There are no longer any commercial boats here, and only a couple left in Newport.

“If they keep cutting and cutting, at some point there is going to be no commercial industry,” he said. “Expect prices for fish to go up.”

“The commercial fishing industry is one of Rhode Island’s premier economic assets, and we must work to bolster it,” said Chafee. “This emergency relief is important for both our local economy and the health of our waters. These badly needed funds will prevent Rhode Island commercial fishing businesses from suffering devastating losses, and I applaud the Obama administration for recognizing this need and taking quick action.”

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