By Doreen Leggett
When Li Quianyun, director of the Bureau of Fisheries’ Division of Fishing Gear and Fishing Gear Management in China, visited Captain Nick Muto’s boat at the Chatham Fish Pier, she asked a lot of questions about the four cameras he has on his vessel, the Dawn T.
Li, head of a delegation including about a dozen government officials and academics, was very curious about electronic monitoring and whether recording the catch of fishermen helps improve science and management.
“They were interested in the camera system itself, what it saw, how it worked,” said Muto. “She wanted to know if it made extra work for the crew, if it was easy to operate.”
Before visiting the pier, the group had been on a whirlwind tour, set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), visiting a processing facility in New Bedford and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, among other stops.
In Chatham they spent a few hours at the Fishermen’s Alliance to get a sense of how the nonprofit advocates for small boat fishermen in the face of decades of changing regulations.
“This visit is really important because China is undergoing fisheries reform and we want to emphasize the role of fishermen, which was undervalued in the past,” said Li, through a translator.
The delegation wanted to know which strategies have worked in New England, and which haven’t. They particularly wanted to speak with Muto, who visited their country last year to talk to them and others about his experiences here.
Muto spoke about the huge change the fisheries in New England underwent, “how we transitioned from years ago, from what was an open fishery — if you had a boat you went and you caught fish and you came home and that was that — to the system where we are at now, which is quota-based management.”
Seth Rolbein, director of the Alliance’s Fisheries Trust program, explained to the group how the Fishermen’s Alliance tries to address some challenges the new system created.
“Our fishing had been managed by effort, days at sea, and it changed to management by quota, how much you are allowed to catch,” said Rolbein. Each fisherman was assigned a percentage of the total catch based on past practice; the exact amount of pounds would vary depending on how much fish the scientists said could be caught, but the percentage didn’t change. Each fisherman could fish, lease, trade, or sell his quota as he saw fit.
“What we saw was that there was increasing pressure on many of our fishermen, especially those nearing retirement, to sell to large off-Cape interests,” he said. “This was having a serious impact on our community.”
To help protect commercial fishing on the Cape, the Trust was launched. It bought quota (often from retiring fishermen) at market value, “with the promise that we’d use it to keep the community strong,” said Rolbein, by offering to lease quota to local fishermen at good terms. This structure is now being used and replicated across the country.
Sarah Chasis, The Natural Resources Defense Council’s ocean division’s senior director, helped organize the trip. She said China is on the cusp of making some big changes. Total allowable catch limits, similar to those used here, have been tried as pilots. Some provinces have also used human observers on boats to monitor catches, a system still in place here, but the Chinese hope to turn to electronic monitoring.
“China is facing some major challenges with depleted fisheries,” Chasis said, adding that it is both the largest fishing nation in the world, and the biggest national consumer.
Chasis said government officials have made “concerted” efforts to try to build a more sustainable industry. Even so, they still have more than a million people fishing.
There are also a lot of small boat ports and, unlike the United States, China can’t create a version of the 200-mile limit; its zone overlaps with other nations, including Japan and Korea, she said.
A delegation from China had visited Alaska in the past and Chasis thinks cooperation between countries is vital as the world tries to solve the problems of hunger, environmental degradation and overfishing.
“It is really important that key countries are working in an effective way to strengthen sustainable fisheries management and benefiting from other countries’ experiences is an important step,” she said. “There has been real progress made in ending overfishing in the United States and the U.S. has come to be looked at as a model.”
Muto also believes the study tours are important because they provide first-hand knowledge while also allowing for a freer exchange of information, albeit through a translator.
Muto urges the Chinese to let fishermen partner in the science early on, as opposed to relying mostly on the government’s work. And although he nicknamed the cameras on his boat “Big Brother,” he thinks incentivizing those who develop sound business plans while protecting the resource for future generations is pivotal.
“I think if they mirrored what we are doing here and allowed access to closed areas, but have it linked to higher accountability measures, they’d have success,” he said.