Number 20
February 9, 2002
April 11, 2001

Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page


Of blood and turnips

The New England groundfish fishery, one of the oldest and  most important in the country, has seen some bad times in recent years. It was impacted by tremendous pressures from foreign distant water fishing fleets in the 50s and 60s. Then there was a dramatic buildup of the domestic fleet following the enactment of the Magnuson Act in the late 70s. Finally, in 1984 an almost devastating World Court decision on a fishing area dispute between the United States and Canada established the Hague Line and awarded prime grounds previously fished by U.S. vessels to Canada and restricted them to a small part of the waters they previously had access to. As a cumulative result of all of these factors, there have been too many boats chasing too few fish for a large part of the second half of the twentieth century.

Starting in the late 1980s it became apparent that there were major problems in the fishery. Declining catches, declining sizes and declining biological indices were all signaling that fishing effort had to be decreased, and decreased significantly.

Prodded by this, the New England Fishery Management Council entered into an ambitious, long-term program to bring fishing effort more into line with a level that the fish stocks could support - in today’s vernacular, to make the fishery “sustainable.” As a part of this program, the Council closed the fishery to new entrants, established a series of time-specific and permanent areas closed to particular types of fishing, put rigorous trip limits in place, limited the number of days boats could fish each year (currently 88), required minimum net mesh sizes and other gear restrictions, and, in federally funded programs, oversaw the investment of millions of dollars to buy groundfish boats and remove them from the fishery.

The costs of these measures were exceedingly high, both to the fishermen and the other involved businesses and to the New England communities that had grown up around them. Fishermen had to find work ashore, fishing related and dependent businesses closed down, and the social fabric that had held New England fishing ports together for generations was stretched to the very limit.

“Overcapitalization” of the domestic fishing fleet - While conventional wisdom has it that the influx of large, state-of-the-art vessels into the domestic fisheries was the result of ill-considered investments by the commercial fishing industry, there was another - and very possibly more significant - cause. As part of President Regan’s “economic recovery” package, various tax incentives were put in place that made particular types of capital investments extremely attractive. Among these attractive investments were commercial fishing boats (particularly considering the post-Magnuson focus on developing the domestic fishing industry to take the place of the foreign trawlers that had been forced out of our waters). Many new boats were built with dollars from outside the industry and with little regard for their long term impacts on the fisheries. This fact is conveniently  overlooked by members of the anti-fishing claque in their zeal to make commercial fishermen the scapegoats for all of the ocean’s ills. 

New England groundfish are recovering

But several years back it became apparent that these measures were starting to work. A press release from the New England Fisheries Management Council on June 7 of last year titled New England Fish Stocks Recovering stated “For the first time in a number of years federal fisheries management programs in New England are experiencing measurable and substantial success in building sustainable fisheries. While the New England Fishery Management Council, charged with developing federal regulations, will face many more challenges as stock rebuilding continues, the improvements to date are noteworthy. ‘Commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as the public, need to know that collectively the Council is headed in the right direction — that fisheries will continue to improve and consumers, fishermen and their communities will benefit over the long-term from responsible and effective management programs,’ said Council Executive Director Paul Howard.

Year 2000 calculations show that estimated biomass levels for 11 important groundfish stocks, collectively, have increased almost 2-1/2 times since 1994.... Reports from several of the major fishing ports in New England mirror the good news about the status of groundfish stocks. As of March 9, cod landings in Gloucester, Boston and New Bedford totaled 1.4 million pounds, 400,000 pounds more than the same time a year ago. Haddock (1.1 million pounds) and yellowtail flounder (1.7 million pounds) landings topped 2000’s nine-week total by 100,000 pounds and 200,000 pounds, respectively. The Portland Maine Fish Exchange recorded a 33 percent increase in fish landings last year and is anticipating a banner year in 2001. Further south, Rhode Island ports have seen an approximate 53 percent increase in landings between 1994 and 1999.”

The release goes on “This good news is the result of a number of years of very difficult decision-making by the Council, but much credit goes to recreational and commercial fishermen and the public. They have lobbied for better management, more and better scientific information and have participated pro-actively in the management process.”

NOTE 1: Follow this link to a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe by new NOAA chief Conrad Lautenbacher offering a dose of reality regarding the New England groundfish fishery. Link to Lautenbacher letter
NOTE 2: The results from the recently released data for the NMFS Fall Autumn Trawl Survey are among the most positive since at least 1984. Barbara Stevenson has made them available on her website. Link to Trawl Survey results

Source: Various assessment documents compiled by NEFMC 

The Council has prepared a series of graphs showing the trends in biomass (total weight of fish) of twelve major stocks of New England groundfish that Council member Barbara Stevenson has made available on her website (Link to information on individual groundfish stocks). A composite graph showing the increase in biomass of all twelve stocks, which was created from data also provided by the Council, is above. 

Amplifying the Council’s message, outdoor writer and recreational fisherman Michael Sosik writes “Today’s rolling closures, moratoriums on bottom dragging, larger net sizes and progressive fishery management plans have fostered more responsible fishing in both the recreational and commercial sectors. Because of these steps and the changing philosophies of commercial and recreational fishermen, Gulf of Maine haddock are once again a catchable fish for anglers venturing out onto Jeffrey’s ledge” (Gulf of Maine: A prolific haddock fishery, The Fisherman, 01/17/02). While his article is specifically about Gulf of Maine haddock, he might just as well be writing about other species/stocks in the New England groundfish complex.

While all of the groundfish stocks are not rebuilt to optimal levels, thanks to the rigorous management measures imposed by the New England Council those few that aren’t today are well on the way. And most importantly, they are being rebuilt at a rate that has allowed a majority of the fishermen to keep on fishing.

But the “conservationists” aren’t satisfied
Unfortunately, this state of affairs, one that should be satisfactory to anyone with a reasonable regard for both the fish and the fishermen,  has been anything but that to the “conservationists.” Lobbying mightily in Washington several years back, they were successful in having language included in the Sustainable Fisheries Act that removed much needed flexibility from a fisheries management system that was struggling to maintain the economic viability of the fishing industry at the same time that it was struggling to rebuild and maintain the sustainability of the fish stocks it was managing. Based on the fruits of their successful - and exceedingly well-funded - lobbying efforts, a group of these same not-for-profits (see below) have now brought suit in Federal court to needlessly accelerate the groundfish rebuilding process by forcing unreasonable adherence to these rigid provisions of the Act.

The question that most immediately comes to mind about their interest in the New England groundfish fishery and its management is why are these organizations bringing suit? The fisheries are all recovering - ostensibly the primary interest of these “conservationists” - and the fishermen (or at least most of them) are still working. The length of time it takes for the stocks to “rebuild” makes a great deal of difference - a “keep your boat, keep your job, feed your family” kind of difference - to an awful  lot of fishermen. So what possible difference can it make to the “conservationists” if it takes those stocks a few more years to “recover fully?”

A new organization, Oceana, has provided lawyers from its Ocean Law Project for the plaintiffs; the Conservation Law Foundation, the Ocean Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Audobon Society. Among Oceana’s supporters are the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Turner Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund. Over $9 million in Pew funds were used in the last two years to establish Oceana “In support of efforts to reduce the incidental bycatch of fish and other marine life, curtail particularly destructive fishing practices, and develop a stronger public constituency for ocean conservation.” In the last five years the plaintiffs together with the Ocean Law Project have received at least $10 million in funding from Pew. Four “fishing” groups have petitioned to intervene in the suit on the side of the plaintiffs. Of the four, one - the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen’s Association - has received funding from Pew, one - the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance - was established by Peter Shelley, a Vice President at the Conservation Law Foundation, as his project as a Pew Fellow, and the other two - Stonington Fisheries Alliance and Saco Bay Alliance -  appear to be closely associated with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. 

A faster recovery or a viable fishing industry?

Perhaps we won’t have quite as many groundfish available as these several organizations (and the foundations that are bankrolling them) would like for a couple of years, but when this is balanced against the benefits of avoiding any more pain and suffering in the fishing communities, and with maintaining that vital fishing industry infrastructure that is still surviving, that’s more than a reasonable tradeoff. The fish aren’t going to be worth too much if there’s no way to catch them and get them to market, and when we “temporarily” lose fishermen or docks or cutting houses or  chandleries, in all likelihood we aren’t getting any of them back.
Considering that the very survival of the groundfish industry could be hanging in the balance, do we have to adhere to a rigid rebuilding schedule? Common sense would argue that, as long as the stocks are increasing, we certainly do not. Unfortunately, these few organizations purporting to represent the public, backed by legislation that they pushed through Congress and bankrolled with many millions of dollars from the Pew Trusts, have been and are continuing to be actively involved in wringing the remaining flexibility out of the system, regardless of the resultant impacts on the fishermen, their families and their communities. 

Another question, but perhaps one not of as immediate import, is who these “conservationists” are really representing in their lawsuits and lobbying efforts? The common assumption, and the one that they seem intent on projecting, is that they’re representing the “public,” which is evidently some indistinguishable, amorphous, helpless mass of humanity that needs looking after by these various organizations which have supposedly been designated to act in its interests.

And then there’s Pew
But a little background digging shows that the organizations behind these suits are hugely funded by what are generally considered to be “charitable” trusts and foundations - multi-billion dollar empires established by some of America’s wealthiest families. The Pew Charitable Trusts, established by the founder of Sunoco and now controlled (seven of the twelve Directors are Pews, another is the retired Chairman/CEO of Sunoco) by his family, has played the most prominent role in funding various organizations and initiatives that are inimical to the commercial fishing industry.

While these organizations/initiatives appear to be undertaken with the support, at the behest and in the interests of “the public,” is that necessarily so? According to the N.Y. Times’ Douglas Jehl (Charity Is New Force in Environmental Fight, 06/28/01), “From a suite of offices in a high-rise here, a $4.8 billion foundation called the Pew Charitable Trusts has quietly become not only the largest grant maker to environmental causes, but also one that controls much more than the purse strings. Unlike many philanthropies that give to conservationist groups, Pew has been anything but hands-off, serving as the behind-the-scenes architect of highly visible recent campaigns to preserve national forests and combat global warming.” Mr. Jehl didn’t get as far as fisheries programs, but the tens of millions of Pew dollars poured into “Marine conservation” certainly qualifies them for membership on this list as well.

In this most recent New England groundfish suit, the so-called conservationists objected when fishermen’s groups petitioned to intervene, wishing to keep members of user’s groups away from the settlement negotiations. Fortunately they lost. Yet in the most recent of what seems to be another interminable series of court actions  on shark management, according to Environmental News Service the same “conservationists,” Ocean Conservancy and National Audubon Society (represented by Earthjustice, another recipient of millions of Pew oil dollars)  “claim that NMFS has short circuited public participation in fisheries management by eliminating opportunity for comment and allowing key management decisions to be made through secret negotiations and by outside parties.” On one hand they go to court to prevent participation by the most knowledgeable and the most affected members of the public - New England commercial fishermen - in negotiations that are surely going to lead to changes in the management of their fisheries, and on the other - and in the same week - they go to court because the government did not allow public participation in the fisheries management process. 
We’ve written previously on the extent to which Pew (with some help from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation) has been responsible for the meteoric rise in popularity of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which, while still remaining an untried and definitely unproven concept in most of the ecosystems in the world’s oceans, are treated as a fait accompli in the environmentalist world. Looking back over the history of the MPA movement, it’s not too difficult to see the policy-forming role that Pew has played (Link to another FishNet on Pew Trusts interest in fisheries). And the Pew Oceans Commission, an entity built, operated and paid for by Pew, is set on nothing less than overhauling national ocean policy - with its own carefully orchestrated “public” input, of course.

So on one hand we have what is, from both the cultural and the economic perspectives, one of the most important fisheries in the United States which, having survived some exceedingly hard times in a mostly intact condition, is well into a biological and economic recovery that is - at least the economic component of the recovery - dependent to a large extent on the continued, measured control of fishing effort. On the other hand we have several environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) which, having spent many millions of dollars to ensure that fishing effort controls, regardless of their impacts on fishing communities, are employed precipitously rather than in a measured fashion, are spending even more millions of dollars in court to hasten the biological recovery of that fishery in spite - or perhaps in recognition - of the fact that their success will all but guarantee that the economic recovery will  come to an abrupt halt. And funding the efforts of the NGOs is a multi-billion dollar foundation controlled by the family of the founder of Sun Oil (now Sunoco) with a track record of moulding public policy. 

In the light of all of this, we can only ask...

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