The Long Haul

Controversial regulations will change fishermen’s tactics, and lives

By Chris Berdik

The video above chronicles the New England fishing industry’s struggles, exploring why the new regulations now being implemented were necessary. This is one of three pieces created by Devin Hahn to accompany a Bostonia magazine feature about new ideas for saving both fish and the fishermen who depend on them.

New England fishermen and the fish they catch have been locked in a death spiral, set spinning by government regulations that have failed. Now federal regulators are trying a radical new approach, urged by a growing consensus of fishermen and ecologists, which might haul the industry back from the brink.

Responding to decades of overfishing that reduced many fish stocks to dangerously low levels in the mid-1990s, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), placed increasingly restrictive regulations on the fishing industry. The government put large areas of the ocean off limits, restricted fishermen to a small number of working “days at sea,” imposed quotas for how many pounds of each species could be caught, and established minimum-size requirements for fish allowed ashore.

It didn’t take long for fishermen to complain about the unintended consequences. Days-at-sea restrictions pushed fishermen to over-harvest closer to port, avoiding time-consuming trips farther out. Strict individual landing limits led to huge quantities of disallowed fish, (known as bycatch), being thrown overboard, despite the fact that they were already dead in the nets. Minimum-size restrictions pushed fishermen toward taking large, breeding female fish, further stunting species’ ability to repopulate. Regulations were robbing fishermen of their livelihoods and failing to accomplish the long-term goal of rebuilding fish populations.

This past June, the branch of NMFS that governs New England acknowledged that the system was broken, and agreed to establish voluntary, self-organized fishermen’s cooperatives, which would collectively be assigned annual quotas of every species. The members of each sector would work out how to divvy up the allotments.

Can fishermen regulate themselves better than the regulators? Some are skeptical, and the details, such as defining sectors, tonnages, and monitoring systems, are still being worked out. But Rick Murray, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of earth sciences and director of the Boston University Marine Program, likes the new system. And he’s not just another academic. Murray also is chairman of the board of selectmen in coastal Scituate, Mass., where the fishing fleet is barely surviving.

BU Today: Will this new approach change the New England fishing industry?

Murray:It’s a fundamental difference, because it de-individualizes the fishery in a critical way. If a fisherman goes out and hauls back a couple extra thousand pounds, then that counts against the sector, not him. So the risk is spread out and encourages the cooperative working environment these people already have, because they all know each other.

Wearing my Scituate selectman’s hat, I should say we wrote a letter to NOAA and marine fisheries strongly supporting sector cooperatives. They capitalize on that community culture right off the bat rather than making it every boat for itself.

How will sectors work?

These won’t be geographic sectors, in terms of carving up the ocean. They’ll likely be port-based sectors, such as Scituate, Marshfield, and Plymouth. There may be areas offshore of restricted fishing, but it would be pretty broad, and it wouldn’t be significantly different from what they’re already doing.

The sector program will also be voluntary. Fisheries Management is in the process of defining the sectors and setting the tonnages allowable per species. It’s worked in Chatham for about a decade, and a lot of people around here definitely want it. I would predict that soon ground fishermen will all be in sectors. It might take some years to sort out, but it’s got to go that way. It sure as heck isn’t working the way it is now.

How will the cooperatives be monitored?

One way is to put an observer on board and observers on the docks. Another way is video cameras. They switch on when the winch is engaged. That sounds a bit like Big Brother. But the article I read quoted a fisherman who said, at first it seemed a little odd, but it ended up not being a problem.

How successful do you think the cooperatives and sectors will be, ecologically and economically?

It clearly is win-win. The industry needs firm boundaries, but ones that make sense, that people can be a part of. Up until now, the whole relationship has been antagonistic — the government telling the little guy what to do. The sector approach, by contrast, is very cooperative.

In areas where sectors have come, some species do show an ability to rebound rapidly. This is a way of keeping boats at sea and keeping fish coming in. What’s the alternative? I guarantee you that the stocks would rebound if they banned all fishing. Nobody’s talking about that, but they have talked about banning fishing for a stock. And that would be catastrophic for the industry, the New England economy, and the food supply.

Chris Berdik can be reached at

This article first appeared in BU Today on July 30, 2009.

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