A rally of several hundred fishermen and processors on the Boston Fish Pier this morning heard Massachusetts senators and other congressional and state politicians demand fair treatment of fish harvesters by Washington.
The rally was organized by the Northeast Seafood Coalition. With cutbacks ranging from 50% to more than 70% for many species quotas due to start May 1, and the failure of congress so far to authorize federal disaster relief for New England fishermen, the situation is extremely dire.
What most angers the seafood industry here is that they have been whipsawed by the changing scientific recommendations from NOAA in a manner that cannot possibly reflect actual conditions.
Initially stocks were seen as very healthy and easily on track for rebuilding by 2014; then an assessment in 2012 called all of that into question, and suggested cod was critically low. Cod is the linchpin for the regional fishery, and other quotas were reduced as well.
Last year, NMFS agreed to use some flexibility in implementing these measures - and now is resisting calls to use more flexibility this year. Under the law, they could use an average stock size over the past few years to figure the rebuilding targets, and maybe make the reductions 50% less quickly. But so far, John Bullard, NOAA northeast regional administrator, has refused to consider these options.
Further, another sore point is the lack of will on the part of Congress to treat New England fishermen the way farmers are treated when there is a disaster through no fault of their own. New England fishermen have not exceeded any catch limit since they have been imposed and have fished strictly according to the scientific recommendations - and for this reason, they strongly feel they deserve federal disaster relief.
All observers agree that the crisis in New England fisheries was not caused by the current fleet overfishing. Sen. Warren made this point very forcefully.
Finally, so far the New England council and NMFS have refused to treat yellowtail as a transboundary stock, and as a result continue to allocate less quota to New England fishermen than would be the case if the stock was treated as a transboundary stock co-managed with Canada. This would make this stock not subject to the Magnuson rebuilding timeline.
In summary, New England has been dealt a hand that just doesn’t work as far as fish management goes. Either they will get some relief, or the cuts of this year will decimate the businesses that have been able to hang on during the previous decade of downsizing.
New Bedford’s fleets generally have enough money and access to other fish to survive. Also the shore infrastructure in New Bedford - the auction, processing and vessel services, all are driven by the scallop industry.
However, Gloucester and Boston are facing devastation as there simply won’t be enough fish to support the local auctions or vessels still there. Federal disaster relief would preserve much of this infrastructure over the next 18 months, so it would be in place as stocks again recover.
Vito Giacalone said that fishing here has always gone through cycles, and currently it is in a down cycle, but without attention on the national level, businesses will simply not be here to harvest again as the cycle improves.