Fish Management

Two men and a woman, wearing rubber fishing gear, stand at the helm of a small boat in the water
The Weir

The weir is one of the most ancient forms of fishing, using a maze of nets and poles to trap schooling fish like scup, herring, mackerel and squid as they migrate through shallow waters. Weir traps allow any fish that can’t be used to be released alive and in good condition, making it one of the most sustainable fishing techniques still practiced.

But as Ernie Eldredge explains in A FISH STORY, weir fishing relies heavily on being able to bring in large quantities of fish in a very short period of time because sometimes a season can last as short as ten days. This is why restrictions on daily catch, which is one of the measures currently used, can make it very difficult for weir fishermen to survive.

Instead of “days-at-sea” limits, weir fishermen are limited by weight quotas and “closed” or “open” statuses on certain species of fish. These limits, while smaller in scale than those faced by the groundfishing industry, are nonetheless causing great concern among members of the weir community.

The problem is, who are the fishermen left going to be? Who are going to be the lucky ones who are going to own the ocean?
—Beth Daley, Staff Reporter at the Boston Globe

Beginning in the 1950s, powerful fishing vessels from foreign and domestic ports swept into the Northwest Atlantic. Equipped with the best technology available, they harvested increasingly large amounts of fish, particularly groundfish species like cod and haddock, which feed near the bottom of the ocean. Looking back, a management plan then might have made for a more sustainable future now. But the fish were plentiful, and profitable, and in the fever of a boomtown era, the amount and methods of commercial fishing in the waters off New England went largely unchecked for decades.

A black-and-white image of several men weir fishing from a boat in the middle of a body of water, with trees and houses in the distance

In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to lay the ground for a federal 200-mile economic exclusionary zone, to exclude international vessels from that zone, and to manage domestic recreational and commercial fishing in it. International vessels were sent away, and the U.S. government set about subsidizing the modernization of the domestic fleet to take its place. With foreign competition gone, the government’s plan to expand the domestic commercial fishing fleet resulted in an explosion of powerful boats, equipped with more efficient gear that continued to dangerously deplete stocks of fish. By the early 1990s the fish stocks collapsed, and as the larger boats moved on, smaller family-run boats confronted the reality of an environmental disaster. In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Act was amended with the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which made changes that some hoped would lead to sustainable fishing in New England at last.

Legislating Fish

To help interpret and execute the management regulations, the Magnuson-Stevens Act established eight U.S. regional councils to write fishery management plans with technical and legal support from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. A council on the West Coast decided to shut their fishery down when weight quotas were reached. In New England, the council chose to avoid quotas and instead control when, where and how fish were caught. To achieve this, groundfish fishermen were limited to 176 “days-at-sea” per year while healthier stocks were targeted and certain areas were made off limits for fishing.

The first reduction in days-at-sea occurred in 1994, and by 2000 most groundfish fishermen were limited to 88 fishing days a year. As the days dropped, fishing rates did too, but according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, not enough to eliminate overfishing or promote rebuilding for some stocks.

As a result, New England’s Fishery Management Council will require certain days-at-sea to be counted 2:1, and by December 2006, some of New England’s groundfish fishermen will be limited to less than 30 fishing days a year. This has caused grave concern among Northeast groundfish fishermen, shore-side business owners and fishing community members who believe the new requirements spell disaster for their survival. (For more information about the Northeast Seafood Coalition’s response to Framework 42, visit the Updates page.)

The Scientific Debate

As fishermen, environmentalists and policy makers struggle to find workable solutions, parties on all sides have raised questions around the accuracy of fish population data. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which promotes science-based conservation and management, points out that, in terms of data, its Northeast groundfish stock assessments are among the most rigorously peer reviewed in the world, and have fared well when challenged in court.

However, some fishermen feel strongly that the data is often incomplete and overlooks key variables, such as the number of young that fish will have, how many will survive to maturity and how rapidly the population will rebound.

Still others in the ocean research community believe that fish populations are actually in worse condition than the data suggest—that fish and their habitats have been so drastically altered by decades of heavy fishing that some populations, such as cod, may never recover.

Looking Ahead

One fact on which all parties can agree is that forecasting changes in fish populations remains an inexact science. This is in part because of innovations in catching fish, and also because of Mother Nature’s unpredictability—given a few years of low reproduction, or sustained habitat change, fish stock assessments have a vexing margin of uncertainty.

From the environmentalists’ perspective, this means that limits on days-at-sea and other measures might not be enough to stem overfishing, even if smaller catches result.

For fishing communities, this translates to economic hardship and prolonged uncertainties about the future. In their view, government mismanagement has played a key role in the decline of the fishery, and any solution to the current crisis should guarantee the survival of local fishermen who see themselves as stewards for the long-term health of the ocean.

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