New England's Fishery in Decline

Industry leaders, politicians react to sharp depletion of popular food fish like cod, haddock

FOR at least the 200th time, Peter Mahoney's left hand reaches down and starts the winch on his lobster boat, "Windemere.The trawl line, then the trap attached to the line, snap out of the water. His right hand pushes the cage away from the boat's side. The returning arc elevates it. Chad, his son, muscles the trap on board. Then, with hands surer than the claws of any lobster in the trap, he quickly tosses two "keepers" into the holding tank. Just as quickly, Chad drops five over the side - too small. The ratio is typical. "Those five are the sign of a good fishery," says Mr. Mahoney with a nod and a smile at his son. "We'll catch them later." The same can't be said with such confidence for his counterparts in the fin-fishing industry. In what once were some of America's richest fishing grounds, the catch this past year of New England groundfish - cod, haddock, flounder - was so poor that it totaled only half of traditional production. "If the American farm belt were only growing half the grain and corn it traditionally did, great concern would result," says Jeff Pike, legislative assistant to US Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts. "That's exactly what has happened with the New England fishery."

Mandate for changes The current dire conditions mandate major changes in the management of the fishery, says Eleanor Dorsey of the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization which last month filed a lawsuit against the United States Secretary of Commerce over the diminished fish stocks. "Unless the depleted stocks of groundfish are allowed to rebuild, no one will earn a living in the ground fishery," says Ms. Dorsey. The biomass of fish is a common heritage, and the 1977 Magnuson Act requires it be protected, she says: "People who remain in the fishery, who reap the benefit of changes that produce an expanded fishery, should pay proportionately for this." Such a position is difficult to argue with, and no one really is, says Frank Mirarchi, captain and owner of a 60-foot fishing trawler and chairman of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission. But what fisherman are very concerned about, he says, is legislation and government control that results in a scenario in which investors, rather than laborers, control the fishery. Does the fishing industry really want the marine equivalent of Consolidated Coal or the Weyerhaeuser Company, a forest products giant, to subcontract laborers on corporate-owned ships, like coal miners and loggers? Mr. Mirarchi asks. "You don't need very good statistics to know what's going on," says Vaughn Anthony, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the Commerce Department's National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. "If you want to harvest large amounts of fish, you need to keep certain spawning stock in place," he explains. Since the Magnuson Act was passed in 1977, there has been a reduction of such stock from a factor of 100 down to a factor of 5 on certain species, Mr. Anthony says. Designed to preserve the US domestic fishing fleet and fish stocks, the Magnuson Act is a victim of its own success, says Richard Allen, vice president of the Atlantic Offshore Fish Association in Newport, R.I. The law extended the economic zone in waters off US coasts to 200 miles, regulated (read, restricted) fishing in US waters by foreign fleets, and created seven regional management councils to oversee the fishery. Under its umbrella the East Coast domestic fleet revived and prospered. But the councils, made up largely of fishing industry representatives appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, skewered their stewardship, say observers, by failing to balance the biological realities of fish management with the economic demands of fisherman to sell more fish. By their own admission, they tilted toward the latter. Boat owners, retail and wholesale fish sellers and processors, and proprietors of seafood restaurants are near-unanimous that the pressure for comprehensive reforms in the New England fishery is greater than it has ever been before, says Mr. Pike. "There will be an industry in 10 years, if we have anything to say about it," he declares. To that end, Congressman Studds has proposed legislation setting a timetable of nine-months within which the regional fish management council must develop and implement a plan to double the spawning rate of groundfish in the Georges Bank area within five years. "Studds is trying to put together a comprehensive bill, and I praise that," says Mr. Allen. "But I want to see the particulars."

Boat buyouts possible The "particulars" will be some combination of the following, say industry observers: a quota on tonnage landed for a given species of fish; a buyout of the boats of some members of the existing fishing fleet with revenue raised from a tax on diesel fuel; a limit on the number of boats allowed to fish; regulation of the length of the fishing season; restrictions on fishing gear (size of nets) so as to reduce individual ship productivity. What is central to the solution is the requirement to regulate the fishing industry as a whole, something that has never been attempted before, says Allen. Citing the example of the Federal Reserve System, he says: "It looks at money as a whole system. Most of us look at money to pay the mortgage and put some away for a rainy day. It's tough to make progress when the atmosphere is all stirred up. Fishermen are so busy making a living and fisheries management is not necessarily the same as fishing." Allen says. "We're talking something that is alien to the minds of most fisherman," says Mr. Mirarchi. "Like farmers, we basically produce a commodity we can sell. "Buyouts and transfers of boat equity, catch quotas transferable like taxi medallions, will require a great amount of education," he says. "But with the Studds bill, the clock is ticking."

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