Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Solutions to seemingly intractable situations often require a paradigm shift of some sort. Something has to change that fundamentally alters the dynamic of the conflict. What does this have to do with fishing? Everything.

In the last twenty years fish in our waters became scarce, some environmental groups lobbied, filed lawsuits and campaigned against the pillaging of the ocean. In some cases directly other cases by insinuation fishermen were billed as "greedy", "rapacious" people who would only stop fishing when there were no more fish.

Meanwhile, fishermen's distrust of environmental groups grew into hatred. In this mix of antipathy NOAA probably received the most scorn. Enviro groups loathed the agency for not living up to the law, cowering to industry pressure and general incompetence. Fishermen and the fishing industry rightly felt persecution and heavy handed strategies to keep them from fishing such as the absurd idea of "days at sea" management regime, and regulations based on "science" that time and again proved to be lacking in rigor.

Looking back into this stew of acrimony and conflict, one thing seems exceedingly clear: management of fisheries is and has been bad for as long as people have tried to manage fisheries. Why is this? And, is there a better solution to this seemingly intractable mess?

I've been pondering this question for some time and every solution fails in some aspect to address the fundamental economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. I'm no economist, but the tragedy of the commons argues that individuals will deplete a common resource because it is in their own rational self-interest to get as much of the common before someone else does.

The solutions for problems of the commons, it is often argued, are to privatize the resource. In fishing this means "catch shares". For us in New England it is called "sectors". However privatization alone will not stop overfishing because it does not remove the incentive to catch as much as you can, rather it creates an incentive to make the worth of your "share" more valuable - be it by fishing or leasing your share or selling it. The only incentive to not deplete the resource is that it devalues the overall value of "shares", much like the value of the New York Stock exchange is higher than the the value of the Iraq Stock Exchange because the value of the individual shares that make up the market are worth more in one than the other.

However, realistically for fishermen, the value of their shares are completely out of their own control (unless you have enough shares to monopolize the market). The primary incentive not to over fish is actually a disincentive - a hard cap on the amount of fish you can catch. In the bizarre world of fish politics acronyms, it is called TAC for Total Allowable Catch.

Furthermore, "owning" shares of a TAC does not convey normal ownership rights such that you would invest in the value of your shares as you would make improvements to your house to increase its value. Instead fishermen only own the right to extract an amount from anywhere they can get it by the most efficient means (not always the most sustainable or environmentally friendly - in fact and in practice it is often the least environmentally friendly means that drives the value of the "share" higher).

Which brings again to the question/problem of how to regulate fishing in an effective, logical way. If you were given a "share" of fish and were told you can only catch those fish is this section of the ocean. No one else can catch fish in that section. All of a sudden the fisherman has a vested financial interest in the health and viability of the ocean under his or her control. In this scenario, catching up all the fish would be illogical and irrational.

This idea is called "Area Management". In area management, fish are allocated according to the scale of the ecosystem and its ability to sustain fishing - with fishermen considered as part of the ecosystem.

The problem for Area Management has always been the idea that fish populations are homogeneous, especially in New England and that fish naturally migrate between areas. In fact emerging science is showing that fish are much more sedentary than previously thought. Additionally they do not disperse as readily as had been assumed. A good example of this is that cod populations in the Eastern Gulf of Maine have crashed and are not rebounding even though cod populations in the Western Gulf of Maine are robust. In reality, cod are much more like salmon than we ever thought, they go back to the same spawning grounds, feeding grounds and breeding grounds and do not mix with other sub-populations on a large scale.

There is much much more to share on this topic, but a great place to start is this paper which gives a scientific background to the idea of Area Management. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A plug for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, Gloucester Fishermen's Wives and bad weather....

Some of you may know that CAFC began (and continues) as a partnership between the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association (GFWA aka., "The Wives") and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). Many of you hopefully have heard of the good work the wives have done through the years to protect and represent the fishermen and fisher-women of Gloucester. GFWA president Angela Sanfillippo has tirelessly advocated for the safety and well being of fisher's, advocated for a healthy marine environment and led battles against oil drilling among other things.

She is also a fantastic cook. As are all the wives really. One of the great pleasures of working with the CAFC folks is our weekly lunch meetings where one of the wives cooks an amazing meal for us to eat as we discuss the weeks deliveries. (Nina deserves a special shout out for her effortless efforts that always result in something amazing.)

One of the things that always occurs to me at these meetings and with conversations with CAFC members is the connection we all have; namely a deep love of seafood. I know personally that I can talk for hours and hours about cooking fish and seafood, and one of the greatest pleasures of working with CAFC is being able to talk to fellow seafood lovers about how they cook their fish.

This week though, my thoughts turned to the weather. A steady blow from the North/Northeast drove swells that topped out at around 16 feet to our shores keeping the boats at the docks. Weather is a fact of life for fishermen. Aside from making the job dangerous, it can impact the fishing as fish move to deeper waters to ride out the storm. There are even tales of fish caught with rocks in their bellies as they ballast for a big storm.

I was talking to my co-worker at NAMA, Brett Tolley who is the son of a fisherman on the Cape as we watched giant waves break at Halibut Point last week.

"You ever get caught out in a storm like this?" I asked.

"Yup. No fun." he replied. That simple acknowledgment contained the kernel of why I love seafood. The people who fish do so because they have a passion for it. A passion they are sometimes willing to risk their lives for. Seafood is real food, wild food, brought to you by real people, passionate people, independent people. Its a profession worth saving, worth keeping from turning into just another corporate industry where workers are paid too little and risk too much.


NAMA and the GFWA are both small non-profit organizations working hard to support our fishermen and fishing communities. Please consider supporting either of these organizations with a donation.

Gloucester Fisherman's Wives Association

Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance

Friday, November 5, 2010

One of the main purposes of this blog is to keep CAFC members informed about fisheries issues. If you go back and read previous posts from the first to the most recent, you can get a decent sense of the issues fishermen are facing. Since we are at the beginning of a new season, I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the issues that have been raised and give a glimpse into the regulatory process as it stands today.

So, a quick summary: In May 2010 management of the "groundfish complex" changed from a system that allocated fishermen "days at sea" to fish to a "catch shares system. In other words, fishermen previously were told, you can go fish for X number of days and each "day" you can catch X pounds of cod/haddock etc. The new system fundamentally alters the equation by giving groups of fishermen (called "sectors") an allocation of fish based on their fishing history. Fishermen in the "catch shares" scheme can fish whenever they want for as long as they want until they run out of allocation.

If a fisherman runs out of allocation for any single species he/she is done fishing for that year. If a sector runs out of allocation, the entire sector is shut down. So obviously fishermen are doing anything they can to spread their landing out over the year so they do not run out of allocation.

The initial reactions to sector fishing were mixed. Fishermen liked that they were no longer forced to discard all of their by-catch as they were under the previous system. The negatives as you can hear about here from Joe Orlando, a Gloucester Fisherman, are many including some of the onerous tracking requirements.

It is really not exaggerating to say that fisherman are tracked as tightly or more tightly than criminals. And while some people will say that fishermen brought it upon themselves by fishing the stocks to the point that the regulations were necessary, the real story is quite a bit more complex, and it could be argued that failed government policies had as much to do with the decline of stocks as the avariciousness of fishermen.

One of the things that those of us who regularly attend the meeting of the New England Marine Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) meetings note is that the structure of the NEFMC meetings are reactive. In other words, the council tends to ignore issues until they absolutely have to. The upcoming docket of issues, called "Framework 45" is a perfect example of the hodgepodge way that the council fixes problems.

Here is the agenda for the next NEFMC meeting Nov 16-18. There are two items that ilustrate this point. One is a discussion of dockside monitoring, the other is a change in the allocation of pollack.

The current policy requires dockside monitoring of 50% or more of vessels - whether or not they have an onboard observer or not. Currently the government pays for the observers, however in the next year fishermen are required to pay for the observers, which can be hundreds of dollars per trip. Many fishermen and most council members agree that dockside monitoring is redundant, to onboard observers as well as dealer reporting requirements. For some small ports getting a monitor to show up at all can be challenging and costly.

Aaron Dority of the Penobscot East Resource Center and manager of the Downeast Coastal Communities Sector reported that in one case the monitor cost more than the value of the fish! Just about everyone knew this was going to be the case when the requirement was put in place, yet in the rush to push through "catch shares" the issue was put off...until now. There does not appear to be a clear resolution at this point.

When it comes to pollack, the initial allocations of pollack were so low that many fishermen feared their sectors would be closed down by the end of the summer because they would catch too many pollack. Fishermen argued that the pollack stocks were healthy and there was no basis for such a small allocation. Well, lo and behold, the scientists found more pollack. 600% more to be precise.

For fishermen, the regulatory landscape has been anything but stable. The constant churn of regulations is dizzying, complex and oftentimes contradictory. There have been few bright spots. However, there are two things that encourage fishermen that there may yet be a light at the end of the tunnel. One is that in many places the fish stocks are doing really well. The second is Cape Ann Fresh Catch, and for being a part of something that is doing something positive for fishermen, the community, your own health and for the eco-system you can certainly feel good about that!