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Empty oceans, Part 1: Endless no more

Technology has bested seas’ bounty, now fishermen adjust to a sea change.

(Page 2 of 3)



As the sun rises over Nan­tuck­­et Sound, Margeson explains: When cod seemed limitl­ess, economic gain trumped sustainable practices. Fishermen raced to catch as many cod as quickly as they could. And regulations, when they finally came, only made things worse. Efforts to try to limit fishermen’s behavior failed. The ever-dwindling number of days one was allowed to fish encouraged practices that were not only environmentally costly but also unsafe. Limits on how much could be landed on a single trip – currently 1,000 pounds for cod – meant that fishermen who’d netted more might throw back thousands of pounds of dead, but otherwise perfectly good, fish.

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“The discard issue was huge,” Mar­ge­son says. And the waste further depressed stocks. “We all knew that something had to be done,” he says. Survival rates for discarded net-caught fish are very low.

In 1991, Margeson and other Cape Cod fishermen formed the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association (CCCHFA). The idea: to go easier on fish habitat by using fishing technology – like hooks – that didn’t damage the sea floor. (Hook-caught fish also means fewer discards, as fishermen can stop when the limit is reached.) More recently, the group pioneered an approach to fishery management inspired by quota systems in places like New Zealand and Alaska.

In 2004, a group of CCCHFA fishermen asked to be assigned a percentage of the year’s total allowable cod catch. (Scientists recommend what should be caught in a given year.) The new approach did away with the hated trip limits and time constraints that encouraged a wasteful and unsafe “race to fish.” Members could harvest at leisure, take advantage of favorable market prices and take the time necessary for low-impact fishing practices.

In theory, the approach also encourages conservation. If fishermen fish sustainably, fish become more numerous, and the value of a fisherman’s allocation grows.

“The quota system is a good way to regulate fish, a good way to regulate fishermen,” says Margeson.

Two years ago, another such arrangement was approved for CCCHFA fishermen using fixed gear (gill nets, longlines). And the idea is catching on. This year, New England fishermen proposed 17 such “sectors.” Many say this grass-roots effort is a milestone in a region where fishermen have historically opposed hard limits on how much they can catch.

“Things are changing with breathless speed, far more rapidly than I thought they ever could,” says Da­­vid Preble, a retired fisherman and member of the New Eng­­land Fishery Management Council. “I thought it would take us a decade, but it’s happening very, very quickly.”

Several on-the-ground facts are driving the change: Congress’s new­­ly reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Con­ser­va­tion and Man­age­ment Act says that if overfishing does not end by 2010, regional fishery management councils will lose their authority. The feds will step in. “We’re on the clock,” says Steve Murawski, chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries in Silver Spring, Md. “The law says we have to end overfishing.”

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