By PEARL MACEK/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — Fishermen, scientists and interested citizens gathered in mid-April at Rhode Island College for a panel discussion about whether commercial fishing is, or can be, sustainable.
The panel consisted of six speakers who discussed the current state of fish populations within U.S. waters, climate change and its impact on fish stocks, and the current rules and regulations imposed on commercial fishermen. The discussion was often heated, and it was obvious that the fishermen, both on the panel and in the audience, weren’t happy with current catch quotas and monitoring regulations.
Panelist John Bullard, the northeast regional administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said commercial fishing is “definitely sustainable.” But fishermen David Goethel and Mark Phillips, also on the panel, believe the more important question to explore is if fishing communities are sustainable. Both fishermen said catch quotas and the crippling expenses fishermen have to face both to run their boats and pay catch monitors are making fishing as a way of life all but impossible.
“The smell of fish is gone, replaced by burnt coffee,” Phillips said about the traditional fishing docks of New England.
NOAA regulates the fishing industry, and both Phillips and Goethel are involved in a lawsuit against the federal agency regarding the costs incurred by New England fishermen who now have to pay monitors about $700 a day to be on their boats.
Traditionally, the monitoring system was federally funded, but commercial fishermen now have to pay the monitors’ wages, a burden that many fishermen believe will push them toward bankruptcy. The lawsuit was filed last December in federal district court in Concord, N.H.
The audience clapped almost every time Phillips and Goethel spoke about the need for less regulation and more freedom to continue the tradition of small-scale commercial fishing. Phillips bemoaned the fact that U.S. fishermen are only allowed to fish one-third of Georges Bank, one of the most valuable fishing grounds in North America and easily accessible by New England fishermen.
He said fish stocks follow a natural cycle completely independent of fishing, and that every 15 to 20 years a fish population crashes and then rebounds. Phillips also said that when fishermen aren’t allowed to harvest a particular fish stock, the population often times dies off because of disease caused, at least in part, by overpopulation. He claimed there are more fish in the Atlantic Ocean than there were 20 to 30 years ago.
NOAA recently released its annual report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries and the numbers are fairly promising: the number of stocks listed as subject to overfishing or overfished remain near an all-time low, with only 9 percent of stocks subject to overfishing and 16 percent of stocks being overfished. Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught then the population can replace; overfished means the current population is 35 percent or below the estimated original population. A fish population can become overfished for reasons outside of fishing, such as disease, natural mortality and changes in environmental conditions.
The topic of climate change also came up frequently in the conversation.
“Climate change is a big problem we have to face,” said Jake Kritzer, director of the Fishery Solutions Center team at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. He noted that a reduction in salinity and nutrients in ocean waters has caused a decrease in the production of plankton.
“Every fishery management plan has to take climate change into consideration,” Bullard said. He also spoke about whole species of fish and marine crustaceans moving further north as New England’s coastal waters get warmer. In recent years, Maine lobstermen have experienced a glut of lobster, which drove prices down to the point that fishermen refused to harvest them until prices increased.
“Fisherman should be advocates,” said Graham Forrester, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island, as he tried to be a unifying voice on a panel that was bitterly divided between fishermen and scientists. “We are struggling in the scientific community to understand these problems.”
At the beginning of the discussion, each member of the audience was given an electronic remote control with which they could answer if they thought fishing was sustainable. At the beginning of the discussion, 69 percent of the audience said yes; by the end of the discussion, that number increased to 78 percent.
In the panelists’ closing remarks Bullard extended a metaphorical olive branch to the fishermen both on the panel and in the audience by saying that regulating the fishing industry needed to be improved, because fishermen have the “hardest job in the world” and “we are making their place of business a hostile environment.”