In early August 2008, officials, industry and interest groups met at NOAA’s Northeast Fishery Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass. to hear the preliminary results of the third Groundfish Assessment Review Meeting.

The assessment review, known as GARM III, has the goal of setting benchmark assessments for 19 groundfish stocks (including cod, haddock, flounder, hake, pollock, ocean pout and redfish) managed under the multi-species Groundfish Fishery Management Plan.

It is then the job of a planning team for the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) to take the recommendations from these assessments and set management goals through closures, reduction in days at sea or in catch limits. The New England council is one of eight regional councils that manages the Northeast fishery.

The GARM was originally mandated under Amendment 13, the first meeting was held in August of 2005 and its primary purpose was to serve as a mid-term evaluation of the stock status and to re-evaluate biological reference points. GARM II, held in August of 2005 was a less expansive and was to provide an update on stocks using existing assessment models with new data.

The preliminary stock assessments from GARM II, as many had predicted, are not looking favorable for the fish or the fishermen. The 19 stocks are generally assessed as being overfished or rebuilt and whether overfishing is occurring or not. Six stocks have declined including: pollock, ocean pout and witch flounder. This will require major effort reductions, the highest will be in Southern New England then Gulf of Maine and the least reduction will be on Georges Bank.

The preliminary stock assessment reports were scheduled to be reviewed by the Groundfish Oversight Committee on August 26. The recommendations from this committee were then to be presented to the council on September 3. Assessments are being reworked for a few species and the final numbers and recommendations will presented to the council on October 7-9 at the Hilton Hotel in Mystic, Conn., where the council will then make the final determination of management measures and adoption of new or modifications to old stock rebuilding plans.

A recently released book on the subject titled Sharing the Ocean: stories of science, politics and ownership from America’s Oldest Industry by Michael Crocker, takes us through the history of groundfish management and potential new options for its future. This book also puts fishermen and communities into the equation as part of the solution. “Today, the biggest controversy within the industry concerns economic consolidation,” Crocker writes. In other words, that it is more efficient to manage a fishery with fewer boats catching more fish.  “The idea is that market forces will reduce the number of vessels, as less efficient operation are bought out by more profitable businesses,” he writes.

While one can argue you can achieve conservation with this approach as this has been seen in other fisheries however, “critics point out that in each of these circumstances, access was bought up by a handful of corporations, leaving many communities with generations of fishing heritage outside the fishery.”

Fishermen are most concerned about fishing year 2009. This is one year before sectors will be implemented as an alternative management approach to the fishery. Sectors are a shared quota between groups of fishermen.

Some fishermen are not waiting until that time to change their approach to fishing. A group of fishermen from Port Clyde, the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association (MFA), are struggling to continue fishing from their community as they have done for generations.

The MFA are turning the traditional approach to fishing on its head-rather than catch as much fish as they can at a lower price they are catching less fish and selling whole fish at a higher price directly to local restaurants and individuals who buy shares into a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) modeled after a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

In addition to these marketing strategies they are also altering their gear to be more selective to reduce bycatch and impact to the habitat above what is federally mandated. To quantify these changes they are conducting formal gear research with the Island Institute and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The hope by this group of fishermen for fishing year 2009 and beyond is to catch only the fish they need to fill restaurant or CSF orders, which would be a novel and sustainable approach to fishing.

Glen Libby, the MFA’s chair, said, “given the state of the fishery at this time and the realization that more cuts in fishing time are coming, it has become necessary to look at all aspects of this fishery including how we catch the fish and how we sell our catch if we are going to preserve this way of life here on the coast of Maine.”