For decades, the federal government and its regional councils have “managed” stocks of fish by limiting effort, telling fishermen they may only go out so many days each year. The results, everyone knows by now, have been catastrophic all around: fishermen have been driven out of the business, fishing communities have suffered, the stocks of groundfish haven’t recovered. In other words, we’re worse off than ever. Many reasons have been put forth to explain this “tragedy of the commons,” including a belated recognition that the author of that oft-quoted theory didn’t fully understand the behavior of fishermen.

But as the government and the New England Council go to work on Amendment 16 (the latest effort to revise our failed management system) there’s a ray of hope: growing interest in a whole new way of approaching this heretofore intractable problem.

As Rob Snyder reports this month, there’s movement on more than one front. Fishermen in various parts of the coast have spoken up in favor of “area management,” meaning the notion that local users of a resource have a legitimate role in managing it. Maine successfully decentralized the management of its lobster fishery a dozen years ago, creating regional councils that can set limits and make other decisions concerning the resource the local fishermen depend on. An area management coalition is in the process of forming. Another effort called the Down East Initiative is advocating a local pilot effort to rebuild groundfish stocks by protecting habitat in the region between Penobscot Bay and the Canadian border.. The Nature Conservancy, already a player on the West Coast, is becoming active here as well.

So the stars could indeed be aligning themselves for fisheries governance at a finer scale. Lobsters aren’t groundfish, of course (their stocks are far less mobile), but it’s possible they’ll show the way for the region’s other fisheries. Many questions remain to be asked and answered, but the movement just could be positive.

Amazing, after all this time.