NMFS, NOAA & NE Fishery Management Council Work Together to Address Initial Hurdles of Groundfish Sectors

Julie Wormser, New England & Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.

Julie Wormser, New England & Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.

Sector management has been in place in the New England fishery now for several months, and while there are still some issues to be worked out, preliminary data show some positive results. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), fishing industry and the New England Fishery Management Council are all working together to address some of the initial hurdles and to help sectors operate more smoothly.

For starters, on Thursday the Council unanimously agreed to establish accumulation limits for the groundfish fishery. Once the cap is in place, this will benefit small boats and fishing communities because there will no longer be excess accumulation by a small group of individuals. This will make it easier for small boats to continue to fish profitably.

As reported at the Council meeting, the first three months of sector operations resulted in (May 1 – August 15): 

  • Fishermen earning more money for less fishing under the new system. In 2010, landings are down compared to 2009. Only 85.8 percent of total landings last year were landed this year (for the same period of time). Meanwhile, revenues are up 112.4 percent.
  • Sector fishermen are avoiding weak stocks and targeting robust stocks. The ratio of Georges Bank cod to Georges Bank haddock (in metric tons) in 2009 was 1121:1532. In 2010, it was 743:2768.
  • Landings of Gulf of Maine winter flounder, a stock at very low abundance, are being effectively avoided under sectors. In 2009, 66 metric tons were landed. In 2010, 32 metric tons were landed.

Other developments include:

  • Sectors are more effective than the old days-at-sea policy and more people are getting out of the common pool and into sectors as a result. NMFS announced this week that 822 permits have enrolled in sectors for 2011, an 8 percent increase from this year, representing 98 percent of annual catch limits.
  • Responding to industry requests, NMFS/NOAA committed at the Sept. 9 groundfish committee meeting to immediately improve the weekly information flow between the agency and sector managers.
  • Earlier this week, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eric Schwaab announced plans to conduct a regional audit of the fishery management process in New England, to help improve relationships between key stakeholders and to help sectors operate more smoothly.
  • Also this week, Commerce Secretary Locke announced that $3 million in federal grants would be made available for cooperative research that will help fishermen develop new equipment to prevent bycatch in the New England region.
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3 Months In: New Bedford Standard Times Provides Insight into the Progress of Catch Shares in New England

Julie Wormser, NE Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.

Julie Wormser, NE Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.

This past Sunday, the New Bedford Standard Times published a set of three articles that gave insight into the progress of sectors (group catch shares) in Massachusetts. 

There is good news in the articles:

  • The fishermen who are fishing are seeing higher revenues, while others are waiting for prices to increase, a strategy they are free to employ under this system.
  • Sectors such as the one in New Bedford, managed by David deOliveira, are working together to manage their allocations of scarce stocks to “keep everyone fishing.”
  • Leasing allocations is of real value financially to fishermen considering retirement.

The articles also highlight improvements to the sector system that can and should be made as well as the challenges associated with low catch limits, which is entirely unrelated to catch shares. Many of these issues are currently being discussed by the industry, the New England Fisheries Management Council, and conservation groups. 

Many opportunities identified in the articles are a function of how the catch share was designed.  Catch shares can be designed to accommodate the communities that depend on fisheries. 

Catch limits

As Don Cuddy’s article points out, “Many fishermen believe their economic woes are not a result of sectors or any particular management system but from catch limits that they believe are set artificially low.”

The 2010 catch limits were developed based on NOAA’s best available science. But carefully targeted investments in science and scientific processes – including those outlined by Senators Kerry and Snowe in their recent appropriations request — can provide relatively quick improvement in assessments of key stocks, and may well increase allocation of certain stocks.

There are several design elements that can help the fleet through times of low catch limits.  For example, the Pacific groundfish fishery held back ten percent of the quota for “adaptive management” and has already dipped into that quota to provide additional allocations of a particularly weak stock—canary rockfish—for fishermen who lacked enough to legally fish for other species. 


In Steve Urbon’s NBST piece, he discusses the “consolidation of the industry.”  While that is a concern, it has to be weighed against the consolidation of the fleet that was occurring under the previous Days-At-Sea (DAS) management system.

In the New England groundfish fishery, in 2001, 1,100 active boats used 65,347 groundfish DAS for an average of 60 DAS per active vessel.  In 2007, 574 active boats used 32,804 DAS for an average of 57 DAS per active vessel.   As the number of days fishermen were allowed out on the water dropped dramatically, so too, did the number of boats fishing.

There are design elements in catch share systems around the world that can alleviate some of the consolidation concerns while supporting fleet diversity, smaller ports, and small-scale fishermen with less access to capital. 

For example, quota accumulation caps could be used to limit the amount of fish that any one participant has access to.  The Interspecies Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council voted unanimously at its April 2010 meeting to recommend to the full Council that accumulation caps be developed and implemented for the 20 groundfish stocks managed under sectors.  This action can help protect the smaller boats by preventing the fleet from being dominated by a few big players.

Limiting permit transferability, ownership and use is also used to achieve specific objectives.  For example, some catch share systems require a certain percentage of the harvest to be landed in specific ports to protect the shoreside infrastructure.  Other fisheries require quota owners to be on board in order to catch their share in order to discourage corporations from acquiring large amounts of quota.   

Moving forward

Much of New England’s fishing community has struggled over the past several decades.  Regulations meant to bring back once-abundant cod, flounders and other groundfish have instead squeezed the fleet’s profitability.

Sectors can help the New England groundfishery move towards an increase in fish populations; an increase in per-boat revenues; a dramatic reduction in bycatch and an increase in the use of sustainable fishing practices.

The New Bedford Standard Times has raised important questions and opportunities for improvement in the groundfish fishery.  Now is the time to make refinements to New England’s groundfish sectors.  There are many options and the best outcomes will likely occur when all stakeholders – fishermen, shoreside businesses, conservation groups, legislators, and Council members — participate in the process with the shared goal of creating a fishery with healthy fish stocks and thriving fishing communities.

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New England Groundfish Sectors: Things to Look for 2 1/2 Weeks In

Julie Wormser, New England and Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.

Julie Wormser, New England and Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.

New England groundfish sectors, a kind of a catch share management system, are entering their third week of operation.  It’s far too early to pass judgment, but here’s what we’re watching for: 

1) The ability of individual fishermen to maximize their profits and minimize their costs, and

2) The total 2010 harvest of groundfish compared to annual catch limits (ACLs).

An article from SeafoodNews.com that we cited last week discussed these two measures, but was criticized for comparing the first week of landings versus last year’s harvest.  However, since fishermen fishing under sectors no longer have any time constraints to their harvests, weekly landings are not a meaningful measure of success or failure

More important and interesting were the article’s insights into fishermen’s ability to selectively harvest strong stocks and avoid weak stocks, and fishermen’s ability to maximize catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) by landing all legal species that they catch rather than being required to dump good fish overboard.

A key way fishermen are successfully avoiding weak stocks is through their knowledge of fish behavior and life cycles and through the use of conservation gear such as the Ruhle trawl.

Using this gear, one fisherman in the Rhode Island sector reported landing 8,500 lbs of haddock and only 120 lbs of cod and 140 lbs of yellowtail on a one-day trip to Georges Bank.  That’s a strong stock/weak stock ratio of between 60 and 70 to one.  He said it was the best day of fishing he had had in years. 

Another vessel fishing on Georges Bank, as reported in the SeafoodNews.com article, reported a strong stock to weak stock harvesting ratio of 140:1 haddock to yellowtail and 25:1 haddock to Georges Bank cod. 

Finally, the SeafoodNews.com article reported a six-figure harvest in one trip by one New Bedford sector vessel; we have heard about several others of the same magnitude.

Unquestionably the fact that sectors are being implemented at a time of low catch limits is causing a great deal of stress for a significant number of groundfish fishermen.  It is all the more impressive and hopeful to see these kinds of conservation and business benefits emerging so soon under the new system.

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Insightful Articles on New England Sectors

Julie Wormser, NE Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.Two very thoughtful articles came out of New England earlier this week, both talking about the current difficulties groundfish fishermen are having in staying afloat financially under the current fisheries management system (1, 2). Both pieces make the case that it is not catch shares but low catch limits (i.e., not enough fish to go around) that is causing such hardship, and that sectors provide fishermen with a better chance to stay solvent while fisheries recover. 
I have consistently found John Sackton of Seafood.com and John Richardson of the Portland Press Herald to be two of the most nuanced, insightful reporters covering the New England fishing industry.  They have each clearly been writing about this for years, care about what happens, and provide a perspective and context to current events that move my understanding forward.

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Fishermen Voices: Dave Preble – Narragansett, Rhode Island

This clip is from a fall 2008 interview with Dave Preble, a 45-year commercial and charter boat fisherman currently serving on the New England Fishery Management Council. Dave describes both the pressure on a fishery and fishermen, and the safety concerns associated with current fishing regulations that trigger a “race to fish.”  Under “sector” catch shares management, New England groundfishermen have begun developing business strategies to maximize the benefits of harvesting specified allocations of fish when they choose rather than competing with other fishermen for a scarce resource.

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Sage Words from an Old Timer

Julie Wormser, NE Regional Director for EDF Oceans program.As the New England groundfish fishery moves to “sector” management (fishing cooperative-based catch shares), it’s good to get the perspective of someone with nearly a half-century of fishing experience.  Frank Mirarchi, a fisherman out of Scituate, Massachusetts, describes the busts that repeatedly followed boom years.  I share Frank’s optimism that sector management–once all the details are worked through–will restore the natural abundance of fish in the Gulf of Maine.  This time, however, as long as sectors are well-designed and enforced, the boom years should keep going in perpetuity, moving us away from the crisis management that has marked the New England groundfish fishery for the last several decades.

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