By Richard Gaines
---- — A scientist and member of the New England Fishery Management Council, citing multiple failures within the current system, is asked his colleagues to consider a series of radical and controversial changes in fisheries management that he asserts is in line with advanced scientific research papers and essential to the survival of the region’s fishing fleet.
”Overall,” council member David Goethel wrote in a March 3 letter to the panel’s chairman, Rip Cunningham, “these papers demonstrate that the current management program will guarantee the destruction of the groundfishing fleet with negligible benefits to the fish.”
Recognizing the time required to make proposed transformations, Goethel, a biologist and commercial fisherman from Hampton, N.H., also urged the council, an arm of NOAA, to ask Congress to suspend 10-year rebuilding deadlines for weakened stocks, and loosen recommended draconian catch limits for the annual fishing cycle beginning May 1, and introduce interim catch limits — allowing more fishing while the science of fisheries management is modernized.
Letters were sent from lawmakers and others last Monday to NOAA’s acting administrator for fisheries, and last Thursday to Gov. Deval Patrick, imploring him to intervene with President Obama sought similar relief to save the groundfishing industry. which faces enormous cuts in landings beginning May 1 that are widely believed to sound the death knell for the nation’s oldest industry.
Goethel, who is completing his final term on the council, having served the maximum three, three-year terms, wrote to Cunningham that he intended to introduce his ideas as motions for debate and vote at the April 24 meeting of the council in Mystic, Conn.
In a telephone interview, Goethel said he expected the motions to be highly controversial because they challenge the longstanding practices of NOAA and the council which he said have self-evidently failed to achieve the goals of the Magnuson-Stevens Act — to preserve the wild resources at a maximum sustainable level and also generate the greatest output for the fishing communities and the nation’s economy.
He wrote to Cunningham that the papers he cites prove that the assumptions made and approach taken to fisheries management are wrong and that they are destroying the fishing industry without doing much good for the stocks.
”Contrary to popular opinion,” he wrote, “eliminating fishing does nothing to solve the underlying environmental problem.”
Goethel summarized his general conclusions:
First, he said, “stocks rebuild in environmental and ecological time based on natural changes in community structure and the interplay with a dynamic climate, which occurs with or without fishery management, and certainly does not and cannot adhere to legislative-based 10-year rebuilding periods.”
Second, he said, “In warm water regimes (which appears to be in place in the Northwest Atlantic) near the southern extent of a cold water species’ range, some stocks cannot rebuild to targets based on an obsolete understanding of stock productivity, even under a fishing moratorium, until the regime reverts back to its normal colder state.
Third, when declines in productivity are caused by warming water, such developments must be considered when calculating rebuilding targets, he argued.
Fourth, the government must abandon single-species-driven management and develop management goals for rebuilding based on an ecosystem basis, he said.
”The most important accomplishment here is not the individual ideas,” said Brian Rothschild, a professor of marine science and technology at the University of Massachusetts. “It is forcing the council to focus on these issues that have been swept under the rug for so long.” Rothschild wrote one of the seven papers cited by Goethel in his letter.
The letter also describes the “action items” he intended to introduce as motions at the April council meeting.
The first is a letter drafted by the council to Congress and signed by Cunningham, NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard and William Karp, director of the NOAA regional science center at Woods Hole, requesting a “temporary” suspension of the 10 year rebuilding requirement in Magnuson for overfished stocks.
He said relief from the rebuilding deadlines should remain in effect until “water temperatures return to normal.”
His second recommendation and motion directing the calculation of a new set of reference points for the current “warm water regime.” A reference point is an essential element in the calculation of biomass targets which in turn lead to catch limits.
”It has been widely documented that unfavorable environmental conditions reduce productivity, increase mortality and result in a negative impact on cod biomass irrespective of fishing mortality,” he wrote, citing three peer reviewed studies. So, he wrote, “a reassessment of biomass targets is warranted.”
Recognizing that the work of calculating new biomass targets will take time, Goethel’s next point — and future motion for the council to debate and vote on — was to replace the extreme cuts in catch limits with “interim” actions that would not eliminate but would reduce overfishing on all stocks for 2013.
The 77 percent cut in Gulf of Maine cod recommended by the council to NOAA in January, combined with a 53 percent cut in shore yellowtail and similar drastic cuts in off shores stocks, have been read as essentially writing the obituary for the groundfishing industry which got its start in Gloucester which continues to be its co-capital along with New Bedford.
”Justification for interim action for a second year of cod and other species for a first year is the time necessary to complete these calculations and the fact this is a new event not contemplated in previous council actions,” he wrote to Cunningham.
Goethel also said he would ask the council to develop a management system that shifted from single species management — which sets catch limits stock by stock and impedes the harvesting of plentiful fish of various species by forcing the end of fishing when the first allocation of a stock is harvested -- to “multi-species management .
Here, Goethel quotes from a scientific paper that while estimating single species yields still has its place, “doing so without recognizing the system-level limitations and aggregated properties of fishing communities is no longer defensible.”
He concluded by announcing is intention to make a motion to create a research track to map changes in spawning sites and general distribution of groundfish, and said if the council found any of these ideas beyond their legal authority, those items should be cataloged in the letter to Congress requesting the suspension of the 10 year rebuilding deadlines for overfished stocks.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.