The sadly troubled groundfishing industry finally hit bottom with last week’s formal declaration by the Obama administration that the New England fishery is a federal disaster. It’s hard to find a silver lining in this story: yellowtail and codfish stocks so depleted fisheries managers are predicting the need for drastic cuts in catch limits in the coming year; small draggermen out of work with bleak prospects for the future; political gridlock among regulators.
There is finger-pointing on all sides and questions outnumber the answers.
But this much is clear: management plans devised by government regulators for the once-robust groundfishing industry are badly flawed and have fallen far short of intended goals. Fishermen are frustrated and angry. At the center of the heated debate is the catch-share management system put in place by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that encourages fishermen to buy, lease and sell off their quotas, treating them like commodities. Intended to curb overfishing, critics say instead the result has been large, offshore fishing boats buying up quotas and taking over the fishing grounds once plied more heavily by smaller fishermen with day boats out of ports like New Bedford, Gloucester and Menemsha.
The disaster declaration last week will open the way for millions of dollars in relief, some of it for out-of-work fishermen, if legislators can pass a spending bill in Congress. A bill introduced by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is expected to be debated during the lame duck session after the November election.
Meanwhile, against a seemingly hopeless backdrop, a number of good, creative ideas are now being discussed for the prospective aid package, including a community permit banking system to prevent too much consolidation, and using federal disaster relief money to improve the research and science that guides catch limits. On the Vineyard the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association already has a plan for a permit bank to be funded by the Cape Wind developers, although that plan has yet to be put into effect and the amount of money that Cape Wind will contribute has not been disclosed.
Not too many years ago Islanders were accustomed to the sight of small draggers in every deep-water harbor from Edgartown to Menemsha, some based here, others tied up for a night or two and hailing from New Bedford or Gloucester. You could buy cod, flounder, yellowtail and sometimes lobsters directly from them, and the visiting captains of the vessels and their crew would frequent Island restaurants and coffee shops and buy supplies at local chandleries.
That way of life has all but disappeared and will likely never return. But the declaration that the recent approach to the fishery has failed is an opening for fresh ideas.
Let’s hear what the enterprising young Vineyard fishermen who have inherited this mess can come up with.