By John Pappalardo
People old enough to remember 1968 tell me that for upheaval, crisis, confrontation, and angry division, the year we are living through now most closely resembles that momentous one. My guess is that history books will agree.
In a far smaller, more specific way, when people reflect on New England’s fisheries years from now, they might also see 2020 as an historic, fulcrum moment. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but if this “Amendment 23” just passed by the New England Fishery Management Council accomplishes what its proponents hope, it’s possible that people will see this as the beginning of a profound transition toward a healthier and more bountiful industry.
The main objective of Amendment 23 is to create what regulators and scientists call “full accountability.” That might be a fairly easy thing to do on the floor of a factory, where everyone is working side by side and a car is rolling down a production line. But at sea, trip by trip, each boat a world unto itself, weather playing havoc and the ocean anything but an assembly line, “full accountability” is a tough standard to define, let alone enforce.
Yet many have come to feel it is essential to building and rebuilding our groundfish industry, which begins by rebuilding our fishing stocks.
The reason why full accountability is so important is that without it, fishing regulations become a sham. So do fishing quotas, which are the key way we try to keep fishermen on the water now, and avoid destroying the future by decimating stocks.
Without stopping the old practice of hiding and discarding fish because scientists tell us they shouldn’t be harvested until they can recover, we can’t make headway.
Without leveling the playing field (if such a thing can be done at sea), without supporting captains who fish honestly and cleanly, we reward the wrong kind of effort.
We don’t give the best captains or the fertile ocean the opportunity to succeed.
There are different ways to accomplish this idea of full accountability. Human observers can join boats on trips, writing down what they see. Cameras can be mounted to record what comes over the rail without intruding on privacy in the wheelhouse. Both ways have advantages and disadvantages. There is now money available and political will to say that one way or another, pretty much 100 percent of New England fishing trips should and will be monitored.
This might sound like a heavy-handed, Big Brother approach. But on the West Coast, full accountability has been in place for years for many fisheries. That fact alone might not explain why in general West Coast fisheries are recovering better than ours, but it can’t be discounted either.
The other important point is that here in the East, we’ve been working on trial programs to put cameras on boats. Almost two dozen captains have stepped up and voluntarily done so, and guess what? By and large they are the best of the fleets, successful hardworking fishermen who see a future for themselves and the next generation in accountability. They don’t see electronic monitoring as an ankle bracelet; they see it as proof that honest fishing works.
In banks, hospitals, casinos, even gas stations, cameras are now a part of work and life. For all the natural resistance to having them be part of fishing, the real challenge now is to make them work for us, not let them invade privacy but use them to protect the public’s investment. Because that’s what the fishery is, the public’s investment and the public’s resources. Fish are part of the common wealth, hunted in the great commons called the Atlantic. If ever there was a place where care and accountability should be exercised, this is it.
Here’s hoping that one day we’ll look back at this tumultuous year and see that we found more than one way to define common good, come together, and make progress.