We are excited about two big wins this week for the future of fish in New England.
The first is a major legal victory that establishes the first full count, cap, and control fishery in the Northeast. This lawsuit settlement means that the New England groundfish fishery, which catches Atlantic cod, haddock and flounder, among others, must strictly account for how much fish it’s catching and discarding. Groundfish have been severely overfished, and this new ruling is an important step in establishing more sustainable fishing practices in the region.
Oceana has been campaigning for years to establish science-based monitoring of this historically overfished region of the U.S. Oceana won a legal victory in 2010 when a federal court ruled that the fishery must demonstrate that discards would be accurately counted, but when it soon became clear that discards would not be adequately monitored, Oceana brought a new lawsuit in 2012.
Secondly, we’re applauding a new set of significantly reduced annual catch limits for two stocks of Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.
While all stocks of Atlantic cod have been overfished to alarming levels, the cod populations in these two areas have dropped to dire levels – an assessment earlier this year showed that after 15 years of trying to rebuild these two cod populations, virtually zero progress had been made.
The Gulf of Maine cod population is currently at less than 19 percent of its target level, while the Georges Bank cod population is at 7 percent. The new limits will reduce catches in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank by 77 percent and 55 percent, respectively, in a last-ditch effort to save these populations.
The fishing of groundfish like Atlantic cod is historic, older even than America itself. Atlantic cod has been harvested by U.S. fishermen since the 17th century, and the ocean was believed to be so teeming with cod that one could almost walk across the ocean on their backs.
As is often the case, however, fishing turned into overfishing, with U.S. stocks of Atlantic cod coming dangerously near to commercial collapse in the mid-1990s. Concerted efforts to replenish cod stocks began, but to little avail – a 2011 assessment of Gulf of Maine cod showed that the fish was still being seriously overfished, and was not recovering at an adequate rate.
Unfortunately, this disappointing story is not unique to Atlantic cod; today, 14 of 20 groundfish populations in New England are overfished or experiencing overfishing, making these victories that much more critical for the future of these populations.
Bycatch is a word that is thrown around a lot in the fishing industry, but when a trawler is throwing away half the fish it catches, somehow “bycatch” doesn’t seem to adequately capture the scope of the problem. It’s that sort of scale of waste that is described in a troubling new report by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The report claims that 156 million pounds of fish were discarded by fishing ships in the Northeast last year.
“156 million pounds of bycatch in the Northeast equals jobs lost and meals wasted,” said Gib Brogan, Northeast representative at Oceana. “What is bycatch to one fishery is often targeted catch to another. Take skates for example, which are a common bycatch species in the lucrative scallop fishery. Nearly 75 percent of the 101 million pounds of skates that were caught were discarded while New England skate fishermen struggle to increase their quotas.”
Amazingly, the NMFS report also found that no information is being collected about bycatch in more than half of the fishing fleets from North Carolina to Maine.
And fishermen are often the first to feel the effects of these reckless practices. Last week the fisheries of the Northeast U.S. were declared a disaster by the federal government and crashes in the region’s storied cod, haddock and flounder fisheries have led regulators to impose drastic cuts for 2013. What got us here? Insufficient data about bycatch which led to inaccurate fish stock assessments. While regulators waited for the fisheries to rebuild, the silent and unaccounted for catch of millions of pounds of discarded fish had been gutting stocks to unsustainable levels.
Oceana works tirelessly advocating for the reduction of bycatch. Only by counting every fish, and by setting catch limits at sustainable levels can we ensure the future of our fisheries.