By Doreen Leggett
A few years ago, dragger fishermen were calling John Pappalardo, CEO of the Fishermen’s Alliance, saying they were catching a lot of fluke.
There is a good market for the tasty, white fish, but fishermen were frustrated because they were throwing them overboard.
“They don’t have permits to catch them,” said Pappalardo.
The New England Fishery Management Council, which Pappalardo serves on, manages more than 30 fish species. But they don’t manage fluke.
Climate change had brought an abundance of summer flounder to Georges Bank, but the fishery management system wasn’t designed to adjust to changes in fish movement and help fishermen respond.
“Unless you are a scalloper, the system really isn’t working,” said Pappalardo.
So Pappalardo has been working to introduce Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management. The process has been a slow one. He first heard about ecosystem-based fisheries in 2006, in Alaska. It has been incorporated, at different scales, in some fishing regulations. The concept has even been applied in New England, when managers took into account the amount of herring eaten by birds, whales and other fish, not just taken by fishermen.
What the council is undertaking now, led by Pappalardo, is on a much grander scale. The pilot uses vast Georges Bank as its test ecosystem because it is incredibly productive and scientists have been studying it for decades.
“The concept is meant to be expandable,” said Michael Fogarty, who recently retired from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
The potential change is radical. Council members and staff embarked on a port tour to explain the concept and gather feedback. They were at the Chatham Community Center earlier this month.
Pappalardo explained to a small crowd that the council, and other regulatory bodies like the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, manage by individual species.
“We consider the relative stock size and how much we can remove that is sustainable, without considering its role in the ecosystem. With EBFM we take a step back,” Pappalardo said.
Current fishery management plans do not consider each species in the larger ecosystem, which may lead to unrealistic estimates in what regulators term maximum sustainable yield. Target species may have declined because prey has moved north because of climate change, for example, or one of their predators may have increased, or they could be facing increased pressure from seals.
Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management tries to account for those variables. One benefit is that fishermen wouldn’t experience huge swings in catch numbers that plague them now.
A recent example is the catch limit for cod dropping by close to 70 percent in one year. Dogfish limits jumped back up, but abandoned markets never returned.
“The reality that fishermen have lived is that stocks go up, stocks go down,” said Pappalardo. “It’s pretty disruptive.”
He said fishermen are looking for stability, so they can have workable business plans. As the three-hour meeting came to a close, Pappalardo received a text from a fisherman who had to leave the meeting to be up before dawn the following morning.
The captain was hopeful about the idea, curious about how it was going to work, but had an overriding message:
“Anything you can do to prevent massive swings, I am all for it,” he wrote.
Failures of the system have been widely studied. Michael Sissenwine, a former member of the council who attended the event November 1, noted a report done by the National Academy of Sciences. The study measured the success of 54 fishery management plans and found that close to 80 percent didn’t work.
Some management plans work against each other, Sissenwine continued. He added the council is also managing far more species than it did in the 1970s. Back then it only managed cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder.
One reason EBFM is being proposed is to simplify. Instead of individual species management, catch ceilings would be set on groups of species often caught together.
Fishermen would be allowed to land a suite of species and not be forced to discard as much. Allowing fishermen to keep what they catch will reduce expenses and compliance issues.
One of the greatest strengths of EBFM is it puts flexibility in the wheelhouse.
“We can change management so it’s something that happens for the regulated, not to the regulated,” Pappalardo said.