Building consensus between commercial fishermen, conservationists and marine regulators is no easy task. But a long, patient effort led by Congressman Seth Moulton’s office seems to be making progress, and a substantial influx of federal cash may finally help the often-warring factions find common ground.
There can be little argument that there are dramatically fewer fish in the North Atlantic today, in large part because of overfishing in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, fueled by massive outside investment and lax oversight from regulators.
But how many fish are left now? What kind? Where are they and how do they move?
Those are questions Moulton’s Groundfish Trawl Task Force has been working to answer since its formation in 2015. The panel’s efforts got a boost last month with a $500,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At the heart of the effort is providing wider, more timely and more accurate data to decision makers. That in turn should go a long way toward rebuilding trust between fishermen and fisheries scientists.
The problem has always been that it is much more difficult to count fish than to catch them.
Yet the work is vitally important to those looking for a better idea of how many fish there are in the waters worked by commercial fishermen. For years, NOAA has relied on data from two research trawlers. The Albatross IV was used between 1963 and 2008, and the Bigelow since then. NOAA currently combines data from both vessels when making regulatory decisions. That is despite the often-flawed data supplied by the Albatross IV over the years.
The Albatross IV was at the center of the “Trawlgate” controversy of the early 2000s, when NOAA scientists had to concede the trawler used the wrong nets, likely missing hundreds of thousands of fish. Yet regulators stood by that data to set low catch limits based on the admittedly flawed numbers.
That data should not be used in present-day decision-making, and much of the grant money will go toward separating the data collected by the Bigelow from that of the Albatross IV. Will it show a miraculous recovery of fishing stocks? That’s not likely, and there are other factors at play, such as ocean warming that pushes many species farther north into cooler Canadian waters.
But it should go a long way toward building a set of facts that can be trusted by all stakeholders. It is difficult to understate the distrust commercial fishermen have for fisheries regulators. Trawlgate still casts a long shadow over working waterfronts up and down the New England coast.
Money would also be used to better determine how many fish are in parts of the ocean that are inhospitable to trawlers. Researchers will use the age-old practice of long-lining — employing long strings of hooks dropped and left on or near the bottom of the ocean at depths beyond the reach of trawling vessels.
The grants would also fund work to collect data on how much fish is caught by fishermen and to compare it to the NOAA trawl surveys.
Finally, the grants will collect data on how many fish are caught by fishermen and compare that information to the trawl surveys that NOAA conducts. The goal is to determine the degree to which the trawl surveys overlap with where key groundfish stocks are caught in the Gulf of Maine.
There is a lot riding on what is a relatively modest $500,000 investment on the part of NOAA. But conducted properly — and transparently — it could give fishermen, conservationists and regulators a common starting point for discussions on how best to protect fish stocks as well as one of the nation’s oldest industries.