Time for some holistic talk in Chatham

Oct 25, 2022 | Over the Bar, News

Over the Bar

Christopher Seufert photo

By John Pappalardo

The ocean doesn’t subdivide and segregate, that’s not nature’s way. Mixing and mingling, coursing and combining, always is the default.

But that fact of life can drive fisheries managers crazy. If everything always is in flux, interconnected in the complex play and way of life, how can we be smart and responsible, know what we’ve got and what to do, keep commercial and recreational fishing strong while thinking ahead and protecting both habitat and fishing for the future?

Ocean life doesn’t fit into columns on spreadsheets with neat predictions, dammit.

Despite this, we have tried to manage the fishery by analyzing each species stock by stock, region by region, imposing catch limits defined by what scientists identify as “sustainable.” Some call this a silo approach; each stock is considered on its own, each stock studied for population and health, each stock assigned a quota. How one affects the other, how other factors and forces might change the whole picture, does not make it to this table.

That’s a rational, historic way to go about this. But of course the ocean is not a place of silos, and our scientific effort to parse life into compartments don’t always work. It’s not like the blind man touching parts of the elephant, from trunk to tail, with no conceivable idea of the whole animal, but it is somewhat comparable.

Can we think more holistically? And if we do, could we become better stewards and smarter managers? Could we factor in complexities and at the same time create more flexibility and accuracy, so fishermen find they face fewer moments when what they know to be true doesn’t jive with the projections and single-stock assessments that control their work?

Enter EBFM, Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management.

As chair of a committee created by the New England Fishery Management Council to try to translate this overarching concept into pragmatic reality, I’ve spent a lot of time and worked with a lot of bright, committed people to see if there’s a way to get there. It’s daunting.

The variables, as the scientists put it, are many. The combination of complexity and detail, building a plan that can stand up to public scrutiny and maybe even court challenge, is mind boggling.

But great progress has been made, and now there is a model, a first pass for what this might look like, and it’s using Georges Bank, perhaps the most famous of fishing grounds, to showcase the possibilities.

So if you’re brave, and want to get into the weeds – in this case seaweeds – take a deep breath and dive into this document. If nothing else you’ll begin to get a sense of just how complicated this can be, how hard and well people in fisheries management have been working to try to take a giant conceptual step:


Then again, if this seems overwhelming, fair enough. There’s another way to begin to get a handle on this that’s much more personal, and organic:

A public workshop sponsored by the New England Fishery Management Council to explore all things EBFM, including this plan, will take place at the Chatham Community Center on Route 28 Tuesday, November 1, 3-6 pm. Doing the reading always helps, but sometimes sitting in with fishermen, scientists, interested community members, is a better way to make sense of the big picture and all its nuances.

I’ll be there for sure.

Stop on by. We might be on the verge of a revolutionary new way to define how we manage the bounty of the oceans, better maintain our fleet and get a lot closer to what I’ll call nature’s truths. Then again, I might be a hopeless romantic.

All reality checks appreciated.

John Pappalardo is CEO of The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance


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