By Doreen Leggett
Commercial fishermen invest a great deal in their businesses, both in terms of money — boats, equipment and crew to name a few expenses – as well as time — marketing, selling and scouting, again to name just a few tasks.
They also invest in the industry’s future, weighing in on myriad edicts that make commercial fishing one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country.
So when Congressman Jared Huffman, D-California, took his Magnuson-Stevens Act listening tour to New England – albeit virtually on account of the pandemic – Captain Eric Hesse was there.
Hesse, representing the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, was appreciative of the chance to share thoughts.
“We all have things we think about and we muse about as we spend our time on the water and certainly accountability in New England’s groundfishery is one of those big issues for me,” Hesse said, sitting at his computer late last month, pictures of his boats in the background.
Accountability – keeping strict tabs on the catch – has been talked about for decades. Hesse, who has monitoring cameras on his boat for every trip, believes that 100-percent coverage would drive better science and help bring back the iconic cod fishery. Others disagree on the need for full coverage either through human observers or cameras. This very issue was being debated by the New England Fishery Management Council, created by the Magnuson Stevens Act, while the listening tour took place. Later that week, the fishery council voted to approve 100 percent monitoring coverage.
The Magnuson- Stevens Act, first passed in 1976, is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in United States federal waters. Huffman is chair of the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee in Congress, and the meeting was his eighth tour stop. The aim, he has said, is to assess whether improvements to the Magnuson-Stevens Act are needed and, if so, what they should be.
Fishing industry members from across New England as well as environmental advocacy organizations, scientists and legislators were on the Facebook live event. The conversation was wide-ranging, but there seemed to be general agreement that the expansive legislation known as MSA had done its job.
Jon Hare, science and research director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said the success of the act isn’t touted enough: In 2019 the nation logged an all-time low of stocks experiencing overfishing.
“The era of fishing being the dominant factor driving stock dynamics has ended,” Hare said. Now climate conditions, habitat changes and contaminants, as well as other factors, are playing large roles in defining fish populations.
Most on the call, including Huffman, talked about how climate change is upending how fisheries have been managed. Many mentioned that regulators have to become more nimble to deal with rapidly changing waters, particularly in the Gulf of Maine, which has seen perhaps the most drastic temperature increase in the world.
There are ways climate change can become an advantage if fishermen are allowed to harvest abundant species that are moving north into New England. But if those species continue to be managed by a different regional council not attuned to changing realities, local fishermen (and seafood lovers) lose opportunities.
Hesse offered an example:
Hesse fishes for Bluefin tuna in the summer. Fishermen have noticed in recent years that there are a lot of small as well as large Bluefin, “a lot,” he emphasized. But the stock assessment, which happens in Southern waters, hasn’t picked up on the huge change because the fish have moved north.
“To be absolutely inundated with fish, the result of decades of fishery management and adhering to quotas, and then be told you are going to have to take a 30-percent reduction – that’s hard to take,” he said.
Even before Covid-19, surveys that informed regulations were considered inadequate; now they are virtually non-existent, panelists said. Unlike in the Pacific, there is only one coast-wide survey that informs management in New England. Panelists said the MSA should look to address that and – again like the Pacific – rely on collaborative science with fishermen.
“So much of this is about having the right data,” said Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton.
Another theme was protecting fishing communities, something that resonated in New England where, Huffman noted, the U.S. fishing industry began and where the nation’s most valuable port remains, in New Bedford.
Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said that for too long fishermen have been undervalued. Like farmers, they are essential to feeding the country, but they receive far less support.
“The hard work is being done right now to protect our marine resources,but we aren’t as a nation stepping up to protect the people and the communities that harvest that seafood,” Martens said.