Fisheries represent a unique opportunity to think about our natural environment and how it interacts with society. Fish are the last of our wild food sources and, because of their cultural importance to New England, there is still a vast diversity in how these resources are managed, harvested and even consumed. Within the management system, there is uncertainty surrounding this resource because it is highly mobile and out of sight; it is much more difficult to count fish then it is, for example, to survey a forest. These complexities make regulators reliant on science to inform the decision-making process in determining how many fish can be harvested from the resource and how it is done. The New England groundfish fleet, vessels that fish for species like cod, haddock and flounder, recently received a scientific update on several key economic species that showed massive declines in populations. In response, the managers of the resource will be required to reduce what fishermen are allowed to catch, in some cases by over 70 percent, creating an economic crisis in the New England groundfish fishery of historic proportions.
The management of fish stocks is where science and society meet and often times clash. In the past, the fishing industry has argued that the science was wrong and that the industry shouldn’t bear hardships based on science that didn’t represent what they saw on the water. Now the entire industry is quickly realizing something that most Maine fishermen have been saying for years: there are simply not enough fish in the ocean. There are many hypotheses for what has caused the decline in fish stocks and solving those problems must be made a priority, but in the short term we must focus on how to get our fishermen and their families through the next few years. Some industry members have begun asking for a federal or industry funded buyback to address the imbalance of fish to fishermen and create a “graceful exit” for those who cannot survive the allocation cuts.
A graceful exit sounds good and altruistic, but what does a buyback actually mean for Maine and its fishing communities? A buyback is a tool that can be used to help alleviate the problem of too many boats fishing, but first managers should ask: is that actually the problem our fishing fleet is facing? Maine has already experienced the highest rate of fleet consolidation out of any state in New England with a loss of 79 percent of our groundfish boats from 1996 to 2010. Can Maine afford to watch more small businesses be absorbed by the larger fleet? I don’t believe we can.
We must pay attention to our fishing families who are trying to survive through these next few difficult years without losing sight of what we would like our future to be. It is already incredibly difficult for someone to buy a permit and become a groundfish fisherman and after a buyback there will be even less opportunity for the small, community-based fishermen to gain a foothold and grow a business.
The groundfish industry of New England is in trouble, but the knee-jerk reaction of assuming a traditional buyback is the solution could be costly for Maine and small-boat fishermen across New England. While most of our regulations have been focused on science, this disaster offers us the opportunity to examine the type of fishing we wish to preserve in Maine, as well as considerations for the impacts on coastal communities that must be part of any relief or buyback package. A buyback is, in simple terms, a handout to fishermen and a glorified government-sanctioned consolidation of the industry. We must think outside the box to ensure we don’t continue down the path of losing our small boats and small communities and instead use this opportunity to invest in the future through better science, management and shore-side infrastructure and other activities that helps build a fishing fleet that best supports our communities and the State of Maine.
Ben Martens is Executive Director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association