A report by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released Wednesday highlights results of the first year of the groundfish sector management program in New England. The dramatic management shift appears to be helping the fishery turn the corner to a more economically and environmentally sustainable fishery.
With the first full year of operation under sectors now complete, results of the program’s performance are encouraging. Sector fishermen stayed within their allowed catch levels, groundfish revenues were essentially stable, overall revenues were up, fishermen received higher prices for fish, and the amount of wasted fish dumped overboard was substantially reduced.
The report highlights a number of continuing trends. For example, the number of active groundfish vessels has been declining for over a decade. The eight percent decline in the 2010 fishing year was similar to the decline from 2007 to 2009.
In May 2010, the New England groundfish fishery underwent a substantial management overhaul. At that time, fishermen were asked to choose between one of two fundamentally different systems: sector management, in which fishermen voluntarily formed fishing cooperatives, or “sectors,” and pledged to keep their catch within strict limits as required under the renewed federal fisheries law (the Magnuson-Stevens Act); or the “common pool,” a continuation of the days-at-sea and daily trip limits structure. All fishermen were placed under new, federally mandated Annual Catch Limits (ACLs), which had been previously slated to take effect in 2010.
More than half of the fishery’s permit holders – representing 98 percent of the fish harvested – chose to join sectors. In 2011, an additional 10 percent of permit holders joined the sector program, bringing the total number in the program to 836 permit holders, representing 98.8 percent of the fish harvested.
Results for the First Year
So how has the new system fared?
- Revenues, which had been decreasing substantially for years, have stabilized. Fishermen generated $84.5 million in revenue from groundfish in the 2009 fishing year and $83.1 million in the 2010 fishing year. Fishing revenue from all landings on groundfish trips in 2010 increased by 24 percent.
- Fishermen are more efficient. They are landing the same amount of fish while spending less time on the water. Total fishing revenue per day fishing (“days absent”) on a groundfish trip increased by over 25% in the 2010 fishing year, after declining the previous three years.
- The percentage of groundfish revenue for the top 20% of the vessels increased from 69% in 2009 to 80% in 2010. Most of the revenue from New England’s fisheries has, for years, been generated by 20% or less of the vessels. The report did not provide information on trends in permit ownership and concentration for 2010 in relation to previous years.
- Fishermen earned more per fish landed. The average price per pound that New England fishermen received for groundfish increased 16% in the 2010 fishing year compared to 2009. The price “small boat” fishermen (vessels less than 50 feet) received per pound of groundfish was up 35% in the 2010 fishing year, in comparison to 2009. That price increase was more than the increase for larger vessels (13% for vessels larger than 50 feet).
- Bycatch, the discarding of often legally sized fish because they exceed catch limits or are the wrong species, has dropped significantly. Data for the first five months of the 2010 fishing year indicated that the discard rate for all groundfish stocks combined for sector vessels (4%) was nearly four times less than that for common pool vessels (15%).
- Fishermen stayed under the catch limits for all species under sectors. This contradicts predictions by some that catch limits would shut the fishery down by mid-season.
Even with these successes, there are outcomes under sectors that we need to continue to watch and address that are the continuation of trends in this fishery over the last several years. In a previous post, EDF has stated its support of recommendations from eight senators about refinements that should be made to the sector management program.
In addition, EDF believes that the New England Fishery Management Council should continue the process of initiating an amendment to establish "accumulation limits.” This is going to be a difficult and drawn out process given that the issue is so complex and opinions so divergent. However, these tough choices need to be made so the groundfish industry can establish some stability and protections to prevent a situation in which only a few large operators control the fishery.