Editor's note: The author read this letter to the New England Fishery Management Council at its June 21 meeting. It is reprinted below.

To the editor:

When I started fishing, everywhere you went you could see boats. They were of all types and sizes, domestic and foreign. There were no regulations. The only limitation on you was how hard you could physically work. It was a free-for-all, the Wild West revisited.  Now I go fishing days and often don't see another commercial fishing boat. It's been my generation of fishermen that has bridged the gap from what was to what is. From an unregulated, volume-based industry to one that is highly regulated and quality oriented. I believe there has been more changes in my lifetime than in all of the industries prior history. 

Change had to come. With changes in vessel design, advances in electronics and gear technology, the resource could not now support a fleet the size it was. As recently as the 1980s, overfishing was occurring. In Ipswich Bay alone, an area of approximately 60 square miles, you could count 30 or more boats on most days. Although I've been unable to get hard figures, I estimate that presently there are fewer than 30 boats actively fishing shore side of the Western Gulf of Maine Closure. An area of approximately 1000 square miles. By using factors such as door spread and time at sea, I estimate that if these boats all fished at the same time they would cover less than 0.5 percent of this area. And, estimating trips per year, this would happen less than 7 percent of a year's time. If able to include factors such as overlapping tows and travel time, these percentages would surely be lower. If this can cause overfishing, if survival of the resources that support our fishery depends on stricter control of this minuscule fishing effort, then we as stewards of this public resource have all failed. All the sacrifices made, the time and public money spent, has been for nothing. This I refuse to believe. My attitude toward the process has changed over the years from one of defiance to one of advocacy. 

It all begins with the science. Magnuson-Stevens mandates, and we all agree, that we must use best available. But I question that if what were getting now is the best available.

I have no doubt that the scientists and their staffs are doing the best they can with the information they have. I can't address the analytics – that's way beyond my pay grade. What I can speak of is the collection of data. It's remained basically the same since it's beginning in the 1960s. Sampling at randomly chosen stations.

I understand science's need for consistency, but the only constant in nature is change. History itself has tried to teach us that we can't react to a fluid situation by adhering to a rigid doctrine.

During a recent survey cruise, one third (approximately 40) of the stations were in a 3,500-square-mile area in the west. The other two thirds were in the rest of the Gulf. By these figures each station in the west represented 90 square miles while each station in the rest of the Gulf represented 450 square miles.

While reporting increases in catch rates, we who fish in the west are told we're not seeing the big picture. I suggest that with the disproportionate distribution of stations, and based on the many reports I continue hear, science itself is missing the big picture. It's happened before with pollock.

We know there are many reasons for changes in fish habits – food availability, water temperature, predation and spawning cycles to name a few. Conditions such as moon phases, whether its night or day and if the tide is coming in or going out, even wind direction will affect catch rates tremendously. Wrong place, wrong time, false data. It's also been asserted that stocks are concentrating in the western Gulf. One theory for this is that stocks tend to group together when depleted.

If we were to take the same protocol that's used to determine fish stocks and apply it to the next U.S. Census, we would find that most of us are grouped together in the East. And we disperse in the vastness of the West. Are we to assume our population is decreasing? Of course not. Foolishness. But this example does parallel fish distribution in the Gulf of Maine.

We change our habits and our population shifts slowly. We are able to physically see what's happening.

We can't see below the surface of the ocean. Fish habits and population shifts happen quickly, often day to day. Without flexibility how can science take these changes into account? How can they get accurate data?

Policy is created from a myriad of ideas. If these ideas are formed using inaccurate or misread data, how can we form sound policy? I've been told that people sitting in the windowless rooms have to make hard decisions. I ask these people to please look past the numbers given them. To open a door, knock down a wall if need be. To listen to what industry, both commercial and recreational, is saying. More importantly, to see what we're seeing.

Nature runs in cycles. I've seen many in my half century of studying fish habits. I believe were on an up cycle now. An entry in my log book dated October 2013 speaks of the signs I'd seen that year suggesting this.

It took another year to develop but subsequent years have proven me right. It continues and includes more species than previous cycles have.

I'd be happy to discuss my observations, if anyone is interested. But in light of continuing comments saying in effect that if science doesn't see it, it's not there I doubt personal observations no matter how accurate would be welcome. My fear is that under the current system by the time science sees the change, the change will have changed. And our never ending circle will continue.

Magnuson-Stevens also mandates the resource be used for maximum benefit to society. To this end I believe that at least modest increases in quota are warranted.

Nobody I know wants to go back to what was. Only a little relief from what is. And to stop being made to pay for the sins of the past.

There are strict regulations in effect. Fishing effort is at an extremely low level. Permanent and rolling closures are in place to protect spawning, Add to this the explosion of fixed gear in federal waters effectively closing more area to the fishery. For these reasons and more I find it very hard if not impossible to uphold the argument of overfishing or environmental damage. I'm sure an informed public would agree.

The creation of the situation is not shared by all of us. But the responsibility for complicating its solution is. Most of us have either investments to protect, superiors to answer to, budgets to legitimize or contributors to impress. It's time to end partisanism. To take a pause from the accusations, finger pointing and opportunism that has infected the process for four decades. To take a deep breath and reflect. If you do I think you'll realize as I did. despite all our differences, the sacrifices, time and money hasn't been wasted. We've done a good job. We're in a good place.

Lastly, I'd like it to be known that I do not belong to any organization nor, except for an occasional job, do I have any financial interest in the industry. My motivation for writing is twofold. First the survival of the industry so that future generations can earn an honest living and experience the beauty and wonders of nature as I have. Second, when my grandchildren see a story touting how ecologically friendly and sustainable the industry has become, I can say my generation, in fact all of us here, helped make it possible.

May we all continue to work for the good of the resources and the future of the industry.

Richard Beal


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