There are no truly universal laws in ecology. Every pattern and process takes place on its own scale in time and space, and truths that hold at one scale do not necessarily hold at another. This is a fact of life anyone dealing with an ecosystem has to come to terms with, whether they are a scientist trying to understand it, a harvester trying to make a living from it, or a manager trying to translate between the two. It is not an easy proposition.
I just got done reading a new paper [pdf] by Ted Ames, McArthur fellow and founding director of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, Maine, which speaks directly to this question—namely, how to match the scale of fishing effort to the scale of fish stocks and populations. PERC is an organization I have a personal connection to, having interned there the summer after my Junior year in college. The paper, titled “Multispecies Coastal Shelf Recovery Plan: A Collaborative, Ecosystem-Based Approach,” proposes a new management paradigm for groundfish in the eastern Gulf of Maine aimed at better matching fishery management to both fish and fishermen.
Groundfishing in the Gulf of Maine—in fact, in the entire Northwest Atlantic—has had a troubled past half-century. Stocks collapsed in the late 80s and early 90s, due to a combination of foreign and domestic overfishing, overcapitalization, ineffective management, and, more likely than not, unfavorable ocean conditions. That’s plenty of causes for a stock collapse, but a few more have become apparent since then, too.
For one, we have learned that cod and other groundfish have much more localized stock structure than was previously thought. This is a problem because NMFS sets quotas for large areas, encompassing a number groundfish sub-populations. Even if the overall quota is sustainable, it is still possible for large, mobile boats to fish down local stocks one after another. Stocks in some areas of the Gulf of Maine have seen measured recoveries, but others haven’t. Non-local fishing pressure on local stocks is probably at least partly responsible.
A second wrinkle is the effect particular types of quotas have on the fishing fleet. After several false starts, NMFS settled on a days-at-sea system, with time on the water for fishing allotted based on historical catches. Though it wasn’t the intention, this policy had the effect of shutting out smaller boats. A skipper with too few days-at-sea will find it unprofitable to fish at all, since the majority of his allotted time will be spent steaming to and from the fishing grounds. As a result of the poor recovery of the fish and the days-at-sea restriction, there is very little groundfishing in New England north of Portland, ME. East of Rockland, there is virtually none.
Ames’s proposed management solution borrows a page from another Maine fishery that had a troubled first half of the century: lobster. Maine lobster, Homarus americanus, suffered a collapse in the 1930s, driven by a canning industry that took all sizes of lobster from pre-reproduction juveniles to giant old spawners. In the wake of that collapse, local groups of lobstermen began to self-enforce limits on the number of traps and the size of “keepers.” This informal management regime was gradually folded into state regulations. In 1997, Maine explicitly divided up the coast into seven lobster management zones, yielding considerable management authority in each zone to local lobstermens’ councils. This progression of local management regimes—none of which, by the way, require much data to run—have seen consistently high landings. Just as importantly, they have let fishermen and managers see eye-to-eye when they otherwise might not.
Under the Multi-Species Coastal Shelf Recovery Plan (MSCRP), stocks within 25km of the coast would be limited to small, local boats using hooks or traps, to protect inshore stocks and habitat. An intermediate layer would be open to larger craft with somewhat looser gear restrictions, and beyond 75km, the current federal rules would apply unmodified.
I would be very interested to see a quantitative management-strategy evaluation of this scheme. From my reading and superficial knowledge of the area, it seems as though it could have a good chance at success, at least in allowing near-shore stocks and small-scale inshore fishing a chance to recover. Off the top of my head, I don’t know of any other area where a similar management strategy with nested areas of increasingly local management and effort restrictions has been implemented (if anyone knows of any, please let me know). And in the meantime, I will keep an eye on Maine’s Downeast coast, where a first step towards this idea was implemented this summer—allowing groups of fishermen from several areas to pool the new catch shares, preserving their access to the fishery. (These “sectors” are different from what Ames proposes, as they are attached to groups of fishermen, not to geographical areas.) Optimism is not high, exactly, but it is undeniably present. And when it comes to a fishery that has been more or less dead for as long as yours truly has been alive, any optimism at all is a good thing.
“Groundfish” is a catchall term for fish that live on or near the bottom. In the North Atlantic, these include cod, haddock, hake, halibut, and flounders, among others.
Ames, T. (2010). Multispecies Coastal Shelf Recovery Plan: A Collaborative, Ecosystem-Based Approach Marine and Coastal Fisheries: Dynamics, Management, and Ecosystem Science, 2, 217-231 DOI: 10.1577/C09-052.1