One Fish, Two Fish, No Fish
A new approach tries to save the sea's bounty—and those whose jobs depend on it
CHATHAM, MASS.—Bob St. Pierre is grateful just to keep what he can catch. On a recent July morning in this postcard-perfect Cape Cod village, St. Pierre's haul amounted to 3,100 pounds of codfish. Most of his peers are limited to 1,000 pounds a trip. That restriction is supposed to save fish, but in this inexact profession where any day a net can bring in nothing or hundreds of pounds, catching extra fish is inevitable. Whatever exceeds the limit is thrown back, often dead. Last year alone, U.S. and Canadian fishermen threw overboard about 1 million pounds of codfish from the premium hunting ground of eastern Georges Bank, about 100 miles northeast of here. "The amount of discards you end up with at times [is] sickening," says St. Pierre.
The discards are one unintended consequence of government rules regulating the fishing industry. Trip limits, net size, restricted areas, and an overarching days-at-sea system are all meant to keep U.S. fishermen from sweeping the oceans clean. But it is a system that is failing—47 of 187 fish stocks remain overfished. A recent study in Science says if trends persist, seafood stocks will collapse by 2048.
Meanwhile, the rules are driving fishermen mad. New Englanders pursuing the 19 species of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as codfish and haddock, have seen the number of permitted fishing days slashed from 250 a year in 1996 to fewer than 50. And even that number is halved when they fish in sensitive areas. To stay in business, some have paid six-figure sums to buy days-at-sea permits from others.
In a new approach, St. Pierre last year signed on with a fledgling fishing cooperative, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, that had struck a deal with regulators. Its members are exempt from trip limits so long as they abide by an annual cap on cod. (For all other fish, the usual rules apply.) So far, it's working. Members of the association boast discard rates at just 5 to 10 percent. For many fishermen like St. Pierre, a 25-year veteran who uses nets suspended deep underwater, discard rates otherwise can hit 30 percent or more.
Unkempt, lean, and broiled from exposure to sun and sea, St. Pierre is the roguish embodiment of the Bush administration's plan to chart a new course for fishermen. In January, President Bush signed into law a little-noticed reform of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs the domestic fishing industry. In a bid to end overfishing by 2011, the measure for the first time forces the nation's eight regional fishery councils to cap how much fish can be removed from federal waters.
The law is also pushing cooperatives, formally known as "limited-access privilege programs," as a way to end the race for fish. "The best way to manage a fishery is to allocate a share of the fish to a set number of fishermen," says Sam Rauch of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the U.S. Commerce Department. "It allows them to engage in a very safe fishing practice and to bring the fish to market at the most opportune time." Maybe so, but many people are fearful that cooperatives may save the fish but destroy the fisherman.
Exclusive zone. Fishing in New England used to be a day at the beach. The first Magnuson Act in 1976 kicked out massive foreign fleets by creating a 200-mile exclusive economic zone in U.S. waters. With little oversight, the domestic industry exploded. By the late 1980s, overfishing was rampant. "But there still was intense resistance to any controls," says Andy Rosenberg, a former administrator for New England fisheries. "New England wouldn't accept that there should be a limit on catch."
The Conservation Law Foundation successfully sued the government in 1991 for failure to protect the resource. The 1990s was the industry's nadir. Haddock and codfish stocks collapsed. Regulators closed off vast ocean areas and tightened days at sea. New England lost 20,000 fishing industry jobs. Fishermen who survived bought up or leased others' days-at-sea permits and diversified to other fish.
With overfishing still endemic, environmentalists sued again in 2000 and again won. This time they had an unlikely ally, a group of Cape Cod fishermen who prefer to fish with hooks strung across a line suspended deep underwater. Siding with environmentalists made them the "bad boy" among their peers for wanting to end overfishing, says Peter Taylor, cofounder of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association. Days-at-sea rules tightened again, but his group had struck a deal with regulators to create a type of limited-access privilege program. To get out from under trip limits, the group would submit to a rigorous reporting regimen on everything it caught as well as abide by an annual fish quota. Not having trip limits allows the fishermen to catch more fish per trip and spend less on fuel and maintenance. The group has since expanded to include gill netters like St. Pierre.
Each program is different. But in general, the Bush administration is promoting limited-access privilege programs that give fishermen a percentage stake in a certain fishery, defined as certain species within a region, e.g., New England for groundfish. If you own 1 percent of a fishery with 1,000 fish, you get 10 fish to catch and sell. Guaranteed. No race for the fish. And because you have a vested interest, you want that fishery to grow. If there are 2,000 fish five years from now, you get 20 fish to catch and sell. As the fishery grows, shares become more valuable. And in some cases, they can be sold. Hence, it produces a conservation ethic.
This idea isn't new. New Zealand has used cooperatives since 1986. And Alaska formed several after its entire 1994 halibut season was shortened to just three frenzied days. That incredible derby resulted in ships throwing overboard tons of unwanted fish, while the sudden glut of halibut depressed prices.
In March, the group Environmental Defense released the first data-driven assessment of the new U.S. programs and gave them rave reviews. The amount of fish caught by cooperatives is better monitored. Discards are down 40 percent, and revenue per boat is up 80 percent. Today, there are eight cooperatives operating in U.S. waters, a number the government wants to double.
Since the new Magnuson Act put a cap on fisheries, cooperatives are becoming a means of defending one's share of the pie. In New England alone, the regional fishery council is now considering proposals for at least 17. "What you're seeing in New England is a complete regime shift," says Eric Brazer Jr., the Cape Cod cooperative's policy coordinator. He says regulations focus on the wrong controls, like limiting days at sea. "There's been very little emphasis on the root of the problem: how many fish you can take out of the ocean."
For New England, that question has yet to be decided. The regional council is waiting for an answer from biologists that will determine the new fishing limits. The number will take months to be decided. But already fishermen are at war over how the pie will be sliced. There will be winners and losers, likely for good, in this generations-old industry. "This will be the battle to end all battles in groundfish," says David Goethel of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.
Future fish. In the argument over how to distribute future fish under new catch limits, many in Gloucester accuse the cape co-op of trying to use the government deal to its advantage by now pushing for one's catch history to determine how much fish one gets in the future. Without trip limits, the Cape Cod group is at something of an advantage. So are the fishermen who've found ways to dodge regulations. The Gloucester coalition wants days at sea to factor into one's future fish allocation. Some fishermen from the cape find that unfair, as it could benefit people who no longer fish but lease their days at sea to people who do. Right now, the council is leaning toward catch history.
Indeed, days at sea seems destined to become a thing of the past. In more bad news for Gloucester, the number of days at sea allocated for next year is likely to drop again, which may force active fishermen to buy up or lease more permits from others. They could try to get around some restrictions, such as trip limits, by joining a cooperative. "People feel like the only way they can survive is if they go into a [cooperative]," says the Northeast Seafood Coalition's Jackie Odell.
No one likes the current system. And even critics concede that cooperatives offer fishermen more operating flexibility. But the regulatory push has generated widespread resentment. The coalition has proposed 12 cooperatives to the council, but reluctantly. "If that's what the feds say we have to do," muses Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman, "then I have to do it. I want to survive. But I don't think [a cooperative] is all that it's cracked up to be."
He points to the Cape Cod cooperative's relatively modest performance. The group is entitled to up to 20 percent of the total codfish target set annually by regulators. There are no penalties for exceeding that target, a frequent occurrence. The co-op, however, is catching only 3 percent. Part of the reason, says Brazer, is that there are few codfish left—itself a matter of dispute. The other reason speaks directly to the fears of many fishermen like Sherman: The co-op hasn't sustained a lot of livelihoods. Half of its original 50 members are gone. Cape Cod's Brazer points out that consolidation is happening everywhere. But he also argues that New England still suffers from too many boats chasing too few fish. "If consolidation is necessary," he says, "let us figure out how to do it as [a cooperative], as the town of Chatham."
But cooperatives may not always mean more control. In New Zealand, fishermen opted to sell their quota shares. Twenty years after the program started, five companies control 85 percent of the catch. "That's where we are headed once we start down this road," Goethel says, "and we will be there in my lifetime."
Officials say that won't happen in this country, since the new Magnuson Act includes antitrust provisions to maintain competition. Still, some fishermen are wary. And many experts believe that consolidation is not only inevitable but necessary. "Frankly, that's the point" of government efforts, Rosenberg says. "If [fishermen] think they're going to get a plan that lets everybody fish, they're dreaming."
Ideally, cooperatives should provide a sustainable balance of fish and fishermen. That will mean fewer fish brought to market, but it should also have the effect of boosting the price, turning a cheap frozen commodity into gourmet food. That's bad for consumers but good for fish and for the guys braving high seas to catch them. Yet, many old-time fishermen say they can manage the fisheries without pressure from the government and environmentalists. "Who is more environmentally sound and who is a better steward of a resource than the podunks and tough guys like me and David [Goethel]?" Sherman asks. "This is the life we love. If there's no more fish, there's no more life for us."
But many regulators and environmentalists contend that the fishing industry had as many chances to right itself as there are fish in the sea. And now both are running out.
This story appears in the August 27, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.