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John Bullard Op-ed in Portsmouth Herald

The following op-ed ran in the Sunday, February 24, 2013 edition of the Portsmouth Herald.

Northeast Regional Administrator:  Photo credit: Laurie Bullard

My View

By John K. Bullard

Northeast Region Administrator

NOAA Fisheries


“Mr. Bullard, am I going to make it?”  The question, from a Gloucester groundfish fisherman, hit me like a brick.  It’s a sentiment I heard echoed by other fishermen from various ports throughout my first six months on the job as Northeast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service.    

For centuries the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank have supported bountiful stocks of cod, haddock and flounders, attracting fishermen from all over the world.  Unfortunately today, these fish stocks are just a remnant of what they were only a few decades ago.  In fact, two of the most sought after stocks, Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod, are at just 20 percent and 7 percent, respectively of sustainable levels -- that is levels that would allow those fish stocks to reproduce and keep pace with the number of fish being removed by fishing.   The number of young Gulf of Maine cod being born is the lowest it’s been since the 1980s, and cod on Georges Bank aren’t growing as fast or as big as they used to, which means they will produce fewer eggs in the future.  I heard more than once from fishermen and scientists alike that once abundant fish in the waters off New England, “just aren’t there.”   

The big question is why has this happened?  Over the years, quotas have been gradually reduced, but still the fish aren’t coming back as expected.  It isn’t simply a case of overfishing.  There are environmental forces at play such as predation from recovered populations of dogfish and seals, changes in ocean water temperature and increases in ocean acidity.   So, while it may not be totally on the fishermen’s shoulders, it will be the fishermen who will have to pay the price.

The day of reckoning is here. 

The New England Fishery Management Council, a group of fishermen, state managers and environmentalists who develop management measures for all federally managed fish stocks, took a tough vote a couple of weeks ago.  They recommended very low catch limits for several key groundfish stocks for the next three years.

The cuts are going to hurt.  But taking “no action” would have hurt more.  The vote is the only chance to rebuild the fishery and put it on a path toward sustainability and profitability.   And, it is possible to rebuild fisheries.  Just look at the successful Atlantic sea scallop fishery.  Today, the port of New Bedford ranks number one in the country due to revenues generated from scallops. 

The challenge is how do we help the groundfish industry through this tough transition?  To do this, we need help from the council, fishermen, and Federal, state and local governments and others with an interest in preserving this industry.  We remain committed to protecting both “fish” and “fishermen” and the support businesses that have been integral to many of our coastal communities for centuries.

Some of the things were working on that may help include:

  • Intend to allow fishermen to carryover a portion of their uncaught quota from 2012 into 2013
  • Allow fishermen better access to haddock, pollock and redfish by approving the use of new fishing gear that allows them to better target these healthy fish groundfish stocks and allow them entry in certain closed areas, in a way that minimizes risk to habitat, spawning fish, protected species and fish stocks in poor condition
  • Relax some of the regulatory requirements on rebuilt fish stocks so that fishermen have more flexibility to fish for abundant non-groundfish species like spiny dogfish and monkfish 
  • Explore ways to reduce vessel operating costs such as finding efficiencies in reporting and monitoring and reducing the amount of fish discarded at sea
  • With fishermen’s help, continue to improve fisheries and marine ecosystem science and the way we communicate that science.  For instance, we hope to begin this year, if funds are available, a new survey using fishing vessels that will help us better measure abundance of flounders. 

So, in response to that fisherman who asked, am I going to make it?  Honestly, I just don’t know.  There are no guarantees that these fish stocks will come back, but I am inspired by the hope expressed by a couple of young lobster fishermen from Maine who haven’t seen a codfish in their coastal waters for a decade.  They still believe that someday they too will fish for groundfish like their fathers and grandfathers before them.  I share their hope, but know that the only way we are going to ensure that both groundfish and fishermen survive over the long term is by working together.