With the groundfish fishing season now underway, Northeast fishing communities are facing very tough times.
The Department of Commerce and NOAA are standing with the New England Fishery Management Council, fishermen and local, state and Congressional leaders to help fishing communities transition so that groundfishing continues for generations to come.
A major part of this transition involves focusing on more abundant fish stocks, while we have in place lower catch limits on cod and key stocks that are not rebuilding quickly to healthy levels.
In the May 1 fishing rules, we took steps to provide potential access to some areas that have been closed to fishing, so fishermen can sustainably harvest healthy stocks like Georges Bank haddock and redfish in a way that still protects other vulnerable groundfish stocks, habitat, and protected species.
We also increased quotas on white hake and winter flounder. The winter flounder quota, alone, could generate an estimated $5.4 million in added revenue for fishermen.
We are going to allow fishermen to catch smaller fish, previously thrown overboard dead. We allowed some carryover of unused fish catch from last year. We dug into our budget to cover monitoring costs on fishing trips, so fishermen wouldn’t have to. We made it easier in some areas to fish for marketable monkfish.
Other measures enable groundfish fishermen to more effectively target spiny dogfish, skates and pollock, abundant and delicious species that the U.S. public is just beginning to appreciate. We’ve done all of this to help soften the blow of quota cuts. But more can be done.
Investing in our working waterfronts makes sense, and consumers can help commercial fishermen by asking for locally caught fish in restaurants and supermarkets.
In 2012 we took a phased approach to ending overfishing on Gulf of Maine cod. Some people wanted these measures to continue, but for legal and biological reasons we didn’t think that was a good idea. The Secretary of Commerce’s decision to declare a fishery disaster for the 2013 fishing year was in anticipation of the need to fully address overfishing in 2013.
If we are ever to rebuild cod stocks, we have to get the quotas low enough so they can rebuild. Even then, it may not be enough.
Fishermen have followed strict quotas so fish stocks could recover, but scientists are seeing emerging ecosystem changes that may be hindering recovery. Warming waters can significantly affect where some of our cold-water fishes like cod are found. We may have to accept that cod and other species could shift into new areas, even out of our region, if the warming we are detecting continues.
We’re reaching out for assistance to our federal partners in Congress and to other federal agencies, such as the Small Business Administration. Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) worked with cities in the region to create community development plans. State and local leaders are looking for transition assistance, and we hope that the EDA plans can be a blueprint for investments to sustain coastal communities.
In her remarks at last week’s fishing rally in Boston, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said she wanted Gloucester to remain a fishing port for another 400 years. While not a silver bullet, these combined efforts start to provide a way forward for coastal communities to consider what needs to be done today and for tomorrow.
This is not the first transition for New England’s fishing communities. I come from New Bedford, where scallops sold for 38 cents a bushel in the ‘50s — no one wanted to eat them.
Now, due to the good efforts of fishermen, scientists, and government, they are a delicacy, sustainably fished and New Bedford has been the top dollar port since 2000.
If we work together, we can make another successful transition for fishermen and fishing communities.
John K. Bullard is Northeast administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, based in Gloucester.