New England Fishing Cooperatives Hope to Rebuild Declining Fish Stocks

fishing boat In colonial America on up through the 1970s, fresh, ocean-caught fish was a staple. In New England, cod especially, was in ample supply.  But ironically, today, in places such as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, cod, haddock, and flounder—known as groundfish as they hover near the bottom of the sea—are in short supply. 

These species have been overfished for years, and New England’s fisheries are mired in financial woes.  Scientists and fishermen alike are increasingly concerned about the dwindling fish supply; Atlantic cod is at serious risk.  And the region’s fishermen have been frustrated by regulation that measures their catch through limits on how many fish they can bring in and how many days they are allowed to go to sea, for some as few as only 20 days a year in recent times.

But since a new plan introduced by the New England Fishery Management Council to manage fishing for groundfish through the creation of cooperatives or “sectors that would be allotted a total number of fish to catch each year.  Each sector receives its own share of the annual catch while the co-ops provide fishermen with the flexibility to set their own fishing guidelines so they can run their businesses more profitably. The plan, applauded by the The Pew Environment Group (PEG) will also sustain more productive fisheries and stronger coastal economies by implementing science-based catch limits to rebuild fish populations, and by monitoring exactly how much fish is being caught.   Two commercial fishing organizations, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association and Midcoast (Maine) Fishermen’s Association are also behind the plan.  

Already, 19 fishermen-run, community-based cooperatives have been approved.  Two sectors, the Georges Bank Cod Hook Sector and the Georges Bank Cod Fixed Gear Sector, have been operating in Cape Cod on an experimental basis since early spring. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates ocean fishing, announced in April that it would provide around $16 million toward sector fishing in the Northeast.  Sector fishing has used successfully in the mid-Atlantic, Alaska, British Columbia and Iceland.

According to Eric Brazer, manager of the Georges Bank Cod Fixed Gear Sector, the fishermen in that sector were able to keep about half a million dollars’ worth of cod that they would have had to toss back in if they had been fishing alone, subject to the older, catch-per-day regulations.  Yet some fishermen are reluctant to form cooperatives, fearful of over-monitoring on the number of fish caught, and the costs involved in sector membership, which run from $5,000 to $10,000 annually. 

Others who oppose the plan say it divides up a public resource and privatizes it, keeping out new fishermen.  For now, sectors for 2010 are voluntary, but the new program calls for a total allowable catch beginning in 2012, for both sectors and individual fishermen.  It is anticipated that most of New England’s estimated 600 boats will wind up in cooperatives.

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  • Posted on Aug. 10, 2009. Listed in:

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