New England Fishing Industry Bridles Under Federal Regulations

Species rebounding, but there's a catch as businesses sink.

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Taking leave of the capital's sweltering August humidity and the growing chorus of small-government Tea Parties erupting across the country, President Obama and his family headed to Martha's Vineyard. Yet the holiday this past summer wasn't all the peace and quiet the Obamas had been searching for. Churning up the white-capped surface of Vineyard Haven harbor was a flotilla of 20 fishing boats, blasting air horns in protest of federal regulations that fishermen argue are drowning their livelihood. "Fishing families are working families," read a sign hung from the side of one trawler. Other boats carried a flag familiar to both the Tea Party and its Revolutionary War forebears, "Don't Tread On Me." The group had conducted an identical protest a year earlier, but it went unheeded.

The fishermen are angry over regulations and federal enforcement aimed at protecting the region's fishing grounds, which have been overfished to the point of collapse at times in the past few decades. In particular, the protesters oppose a decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to change how commercial fishing rights are apportioned. This summer's protest came just a month after the White House unveiled the nation's first national oceans policy intended to create a comprehensive strategy for dealing with competing commercial, mining, and resource claims to the country's shared maritime areas.

Fishing grounds have long been victims of what economists benignly dub the "tragedy of the commons," the idea that individuals ultimately destroy shared resources even if that destruction hurts all involved. In the case of the oceans, fishermen try to catch as many fish as possible because if they don't, others will. Since the 1950s, more than 70 percent of the world's fisheries have become overexploited or significantly depleted, according to researchers.

In 2006, Congress directed NOAA to end overfishing in the country by 2010. To that goal, this past May, NOAA instituted a "catch shares" program in New England that assigns fishermen the rights to catch fish based on shares that they can also trade or sell.

The idea behind catch shares is to create a market-based incentive that short-circuits the tragedy of the commons conundrum and promotes sustainable fishing. New England's fishing industry, which harvests the oldest cash crop in the nation, has long resisted efforts to institute a catch shares program, because it puts pressure on small, independent fishermen to the benefit of larger fishing companies.

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This year, in the wake of the catch shares rules, hauls are down by around 20 percent and profits are up by about 20 percent, given the higher price for the restricted supply. Yet many self-employed fishermen have found it impossible to stay in business. Some claim that's because their allotments in the new system are too small, forcing them to buy shares from others to catch a sufficient quantity of seafood to stay in business. Pressed for cash, some are instead forced to sell their shares on the cheap, compounding their financial plight. Federal regulators have noted that shrinking the number of commercial vessels is the only way to shield stocks from overfishing.

Past schemes, such as limiting the number of days fishermen could work, merely led to larger hauls. "The overfishing continued because the industry, as you would expect, continued to innovate. So simply reducing the fishing time didn't solve the overfishing problem," says Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA administrator and a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire. "Catch shares in New England is a new way of doing things, and there is unavoidably going to be some institutional resistance to it from some quarters."

New England is home to some 35,000 fishermen and boat operators who reel in yearly catches that are worth billions of dollars. The port of New Bedford, Mass., some 25 miles from the president's summer vacation spot, has leveraged its proximity to lucrative scalloping grounds to become the country's top fishing port, landing $249 million from 170 million pounds of seafood last year.