There is No Silver Bullet for Groundfish

The great philosopher Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

You can also learn a lot by listening. I try to do a lot of listening. I think it’s the most important part of my job and of all of our jobs at the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

With all of the activity in the last couple of months, there has certainly been a lot to listen to. For example, we held recreational roundtable meetings in New Jersey and New Hampshire and a commercial roundtable in New Bedford. We also attended the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meetings and an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting.

And let’s not forget the daily meetings, emails, and phone calls with stakeholders.

What did we hear? We heard about recreational catch estimates and allocations among different fishing sectors. We heard reports on the Standardized Bycatch Reduction Methodology and observer coverage for last year and next. We heard progress reports on electronic monitoring projects. And, in every hallway, there has been talk of the Carlos Rafael case and its potential impact on the groundfish industry.

While obviously I can’t comment on the specifics of an ongoing case, I am going to comment on a larger issue that I think is important. To put it briefly, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet.

When people come up to me passionately lamenting that Amendment 18 will not do enough to address consolidation within the groundfish fleet, I understand their passion. The power of a very large fleet can be misused. But, I wonder if they are looking to Amendment 18 to be a silver bullet that will singlehandedly solve this problem.

Some blame sector management for our troubles. I don’t buy it. Instead, I see the ability of the private sector to manage quota with accountability, flexibility, and initiative. All of these are necessary ingredients for a healthy fishing industry, especially in tough times.

At many meetings, people line up to decry the science and management. And yet, some of the same people who condemn the status quo are the ones who advocate for no action. It causes me to wonder whether or not we share the same sense of urgency towards improving the accuracy of our data, which is needed to gain more confidence in our scientific models, which is needed to improve our management. The status quo is short-sighted and leaves us with few options.

I see a system under a lot of stress. When there is a lot of stress, there is a tendency to blame: Blame the science. Blame woeful observer coverage levels. Blame errors in reporting or illegal discarding. Blame the management. Blame fleet consolidation or the sector system. Blame overfishing over the years. Blame warming ocean waters. Blame NOAA Fisheries. Blame the Councils. Point the finger somewhere.

Just as there is the tendency to blame, there is also the quest for the silver bullet. While understanding causes is essential to providing solutions, an emphasis on blame can be distracting and destructive, especially if the fingers never point in the mirror. The solution is likely to be a network of responses rather than a single answer. A network that will provide accuracy, accountability, and efficiency.

I think that network of answers has several fundamental elements:

  • A renewed management focus on optimum yield and business flexibility that follows on the heels of improved monitoring and complete accountability, and that provides diversity and stability to the groundfish fleet.
  • A revamped Office of Law Enforcement that will continue to help fishermen comply with the rules and root out the few bad apples. Nearly every single fisherman works hard to comply with complicated regulations to bring quality seafood to the consumer. So, when the occasional violator decides the rules don’t apply to him, that person is stealing from his neighbors and emboldening others to cheat, and needs to be brought to justice. Our Law Enforcement team is doing just this with increasing efficiency.
  • An improved monitoring program that will provide full accountability and full coverage. The program will tap into emerging technologies with increased use of electronic monitoring coverage by either the “trust but verify model” or “maximized retention/dockside sampling model.” The resulting increase in accuracy and shared sense of responsibility for effective monitoring and management of this fishery may allow uncertainty buffers to be reduced, which could then allow us to increase quotas.
  • Improved and integrated science that includes fishermen and their insights into the design, implementation, and interpretation of science, a wider understanding of ecosystem changes, and better communication and coordination with stakeholders, all of which ultimately leads to wider acceptance of results. The best science is transparent, timely, adaptable to our rapidly changing environment, and allows us to make better management decisions.

There is no silver bullet. Each of these elements is equally important in transforming the groundfish fishery into a one that provides a stable source of protein for U.S. consumers, and a stable source of jobs for New England fishermen.

New England groundfish is certainly not the only fishery with high profile enforcement cases or challenging scientific questions. But these issues are most acute in groundfish — one of the most iconic and complex fisheries in the world. The fishery has been dealt a series of devastating blows, and the cumulative effects have finally caught up to us.

Yogi Berra also said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Well we’re at a fork in the road in groundfish management.

The status quo has gotten us record low abundance in some stocks, arguments about the science, pressures to discard legal fish that have proven as irresistible to avoid as they are to acknowledge, and all of us skirting the truth in many ways at a cost to the fishery and future generations. Seeking accuracy should not be something that anyone gets penalized for. Rather, we must remove the disincentives for full accountability and full coverage.

We have to bring illegal discarding out of the shadows. Talk about it. Acknowledge it. Account for it.

If anyone thinks that the status quo is good enough, then they haven’t been paying attention.

By John Bullard
Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

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