May 29, 2019 | Over the Bar

Christopher Seufert photo

By John Pappalardo

Is it a no-brainer to say that good science is the key to creating good fisheries management?

Sure it is, but when you apply that truth to fishing realities — uncertainty at sea, competing interests boat to boat and port to port, political headwinds that can shove the process off course – the maxim becomes less clear.

Turns out it takes a lot of brains from a lot of people, with a big dash of political skill, to apply the no-brainer.

A decade or so ago, our nation’s fisheries management made a profound change: Instead of regulating based on effort (for example, how many days at sea fishermen would be allowed to go), the focus shifted to annual catch limits (how much fish would be caught). Stock by stock, species by species, scientists would come up with a figure for what could be harvested. The intent was to take as much as we could this year, while leaving enough fish behind to make next year’s harvest healthy too.

Good science would drive the decisions. In the short term, fishermen might be hurt by the limitations, even hurt badly, but in the name of longer term success and a sustainable industry, this seemed like a necessary sacrifice and the best way to apply our no-brainer maxim.

In many ways the science-based reform has worked well. But its good intentions have not always been realized. The biggest problems are two-fold:

First, collecting fisheries data that everyone agrees is accurate and up to date is no easy task. Scientists need annual baselines for comparison, with as few variables as possible, to feel good about their analyses, so they tend to harvest fish in a standardized way, sampling random spots year after year across the ocean. Fishermen, meanwhile, go looking for fish, and judge abundance by what they catch. They think scientists are missing the schools, while scientists worry that a big catch is not a proxy for the overall health of the stock, and besides, fishermen really just want to catch more, no matter what.

Second, when science-based rules were enacted, strong measures to make sure all fishermen are accountable and reporting what they really catch were not put in place as companions. If lots of fishermen discard or hide fish because they fear they will hit the quota and therefore have to stop fishing, even the best science gets undermined. That under-reporting or misreporting then factors into the next stock assessment, creating a vicious cycle that’s bad for fishermen, and bad for the resource.

We’ve been working to solve these problems, improve accountability and science. One thing we’ve learned is that when scientists and fishermen team up, the results get much better. No one knows these waters better than our local captains, and when they are in the wheelhouse, with researchers and equipment in the stern, that’s the best combination.

We also have been finding other ways to make the link. For example, fishermen have been seeing a lot more halibut lately, a wonderful big fish that’s been very tightly controlled for years in our waters though caught by the ton in Canada and now in Maine state waters. We’ve been helping build a bigger database on halibut to support what we hope is a success story, and provide hard evidence to help regulators revise our present catch limits.

Another example is our work on what are called Exempted Fishing Permits, EFPs, which allow certain kinds of fishing in otherwise closed areas because we can show that habitat protection and targeted, well-defined fishing effort are not mutually exclusive.

And so I remember an old saying about democracy: “It’s the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That’s probably true for science-based management too, and why we need to keep working to make it better and better.

(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)


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