It sounds like a definition of insanity: attempting to rebuild fish stocks by doing the same thing over and over again, while stocks continue to decline. On Sept. 27, the New England Fisheries Management Council voted to pursue Amendment 16 in order to correct a management system that people generally agree is broken. While the council vote didn’t change that system overnight, it came amid growing recognition that a whole new approach is needed.

Why has groundfish management failed? Mistrust between fishermen and the government is at least part of the answer. To understand the history of mistrust one place to start would be “the tragedy of the commons,” a natural resource management theory promulgated by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science. According to Hardin, “ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” In short, a tragedy will ensue when many people have access to a limited resource. This fear of tragedy has deeply influenced groundfish management policy. Mistrust of fishermen who would take all the fish if not governed from above became the basis upon which centralized governance of natural resources, either in the form of consolidated private ownership and/or public ownership, emerged as the dominant paradigm in groundfish management.

Jim Acheson, Professor of Anthropology and Marine Studies at University of Maine, notes that Hardin’s theory had several faulty assumptions: “that fishermen are strongly motivated to over-fish; that fishermen are unwilling to devise rules to govern for the common good; and that everyone is using the same technology” just to name a few. For Acheson, policies that fail to recognize that these assumptions are faulty lead to management systems that “lack trust of local level people…and disallow local experimentation.”

Groundfish fishermen could not be trusted; thus they were taken out of the management equation.

Early in the debate over the tragedy of the commons, Acheson and Bonnie McCay (who had worked with fishing cooperatives in Rhode Island) began to address some of Hardin’s faulty assumptions by documenting the ways fishermen go about their work. For example, McCay demonstrated that fishermen had been working together to set quotas for various species prior to the passage of the Fisheries Management and Conservation Act of 1976. In 1980 McCay wrote that “people themselves play a substantial role in the creation of management systems which directly effect them.” A straightforward observation, but one missing from fisheries management debates at the time.

Under federal management Maine has lost nearly 5,400 jobs among groundfishermen and in related industries. As a concerned fishermen, in the mid -1990s Ted Ames, a Stonington fisherman turned researcher, began interviewing groundfishermen in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Through a mix of interviews and mapping technology Ames was able to learn the historic locations of cod and haddock spawning grounds in the Gulf of Maine. The fishermen he interviewed identified 684,000 acres spawning grounds, much of this territory far closer to shore than scientists had previously considered possible. In addition, Ames identified what many agreed to be distinct groundfish stocks. This discovery fueled a debate over whether or not groundfishermen should participate in the management of groundfish stocks.

The logic goes like this: if fish spend important time spawning and as juveniles in geographically distinct near-shore waters, then the fishermen who live near and/or depend on the stocks should play a role in managing the resource within that area.

When resource users are partially responsible for managing the resources they depend on for their livelihoods we have what is termed “co-management” or “community-based” management. A 2005 Ford Foundation study conducted in partnership with Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI) defines community-based fisheries management as “a system in which fishermen and their communities exercise primary responsibility for stewardship and management, including taking part in decision-making on all aspects of management, such as harvesting, access, compliance, research and marketing.”

Ames’s research in combination with continuing declines in fish landings has some fishermen and environmental groups seeking more of a role in governing the resource.

Robin Alden, Executive Director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, and Ames worked with a number of others including Craig Pendleton of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance to advocate local management of groundfish stocks during the Amendment 13 process in 2003. According to Alden, at that time “the major challenge was the idea of lines… it makes sense because as stocks have gone down, the people who have stayed in the business have been able to do so by being mobile, both within Maine and New England… we heard no more lines.”

The idea of drawing lines in the ocean is still controversial, but more and more people are considering it, recognizing that the current system is not working. According to Alden, “in eastern Maine the fish are persistently depleted. And for the region as a whole, every fall when they [the council] check targets we have to do adjustments to cut back [the Days at Sea again]. The management system is not producing the controls needed.”

Alden and others in eastern Maine have organized the Down East Initiative to ensure that local area management of fish stocks is considered in the upcoming Amendment 16 scoping process and to prepare for the possibility of rebuilding and participating in governing their local groundfish stocks.

Glen Libby of Port Clyde reflects on groundfishing in the mid-coast area, “It’s a shadow of what it was,” he said. “Most of the guys that went lobstering used to rig up and supplement with groundfish. There were about 30 boats around Monhegan. We used more primitive gear. With more restrictions we needed more efficiency. Technology allowed us to catch fish and now we have almost nothing.”

Spurred on by an emergency action by the New England Fishery Management Council last June that cut fishing days to below 30 per year, Libby and others in Port Clyde formed the Mid-Coast Fishermen’s Association. As Libby puts it, “It was frustration with the management process… cuts, cuts, and more cuts and we were not seeing the results. Something needed to be done so we organized to have a voice at the Council.” Libby wants to see “more fish, a sustainable fishery, to turn it around into a viable industry.” Midcoast Fishermen came up with a plan that Libby calls “almost a habitat proposal.”

In fact, habitat stewardship is central to the broad movement toward local groundfish management. Fishermen in Port Clyde have proposed that they restrict gear types to less destructive methods to increase the protection of fish habitat. Alden also recognizes the need to focus on protecting “habitat that is critical to various life stages of species; spawning, juvenile, and any habitat structure that is important to them.” Alden hopes the Down East Initiative will create an opportunity where fishermen have the responsibility and accountability for setting up conditions where groundfish stocks can rebuild, so that Downeast fishermen can have them as part of their fishery again.

The potential for habitat conservation has The Nature Conservancy (TNC) actively involved in the movement toward area management. TNC believes area management has the potential to “improve stewardship and accountability in the management system… while aligning financial incentives” according to TNC’s Marine Programs Director Geoffrey Smith. “If fishermen have a greater say they will buy into the regulations and see the value in conservation measures.” As a result, “area management could better protect juveniles and spawning areas,” said Smith.

A number of challenges face groups seeking to implement local management of groundfish stocks. “In general,” Smith suggests, “people are resistant to a fundamental shift in changing management approaches, in this case away from managing effort through the current Days at Sea method toward managing the number of fish we catch as would be the case in local area management. Currently science is done at a broader scale so it may be difficult to move the science to a small scale — however, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts each have inshore trawl surveys that can help. Right now governance is at a much broader scale. Finer-scale governance will be a challenge… finding a way to include local input into the existing federal management scheme.”

In Smith’s vision “we need more real-time data recording of catch, discards, where the fish are.”

Other questions remain as well: How to allocate fish to an area? How will the areas be defined? How will movement between areas be managed? How will mortality be managed?

Over the coming two years these issues and much more will be debated by the New England Fisheries Management Council as it moves to implement a new management paradigm in May of 2009. The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, led by Craig Pendleton, is in the process of building an Area Management Coalition. The coalition will gather fishermen and nonprofit groups interested in working through these questions, in order to put forward a strong local area management proposal to the council.

The degree to which the council moves successfully away from the current management system toward a new paradigm could provide insight into whether or not “insanity” is still the right term to apply to this region’s groundfish management system. Local area management of groundfish could prove to be a solution whose time has come.

For more information about the Area Management Council contact Craig Pendleton or Jen Levin or call at 287-5374.

Rob Snyder is the vice president of programs at the Island Institute and is active in the Area Management Coalition.