Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley announced on May 31st that the state will sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for setting cod limits so low that they amount to the “death penalty” for Massachusetts fishermen. In doing so, Coakley joins a long line of opportunistic, reactive and ill-informed politicians who shake a fist at the federal government as a diversion from offering any real solution to the problem of overfished ground stocks off the coast of New England.
The fact is that Massachusetts fishermen—despite all attempts—have been unable to catch the quota allotted them for the past several years. The quota cuts proposed by NOAA are actually 6 percent above what the fishermen have been able to catch. Coakley’s argument belies the fact that it’s not the quota limits that are going to kill the fishing industry in Massachusetts, it’s that there are no fish out there to catch.
How is this possible? It’s possible because for decades the waters off New England have been subject to some of the most intense fishing pressure and environmental impacts of any body of water in the world. These impacts include shipping traffic, pollution, loss of habitat and myriad other factors. Researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute determined in a study titled A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems that the Gulf of Maine and environs had suffered an overall degradation of more than 90 percent compared to their pristine state. The worst of this has occurred in the last 50 years.
Clarities in hindsight can be bitter medicine. Ecosystems shift, as do human societies and technologies, but as certain truths emerge, we must take them to heart—namely, that there are limits to nature, that we have the power to exceed those limits, and that if we do not take a precautionary approach when dealing with ecosystems, we will suffer the consequences now and into the future.
Martha Coakley should be well aware of those consequences, which can be heavy indeed. Mismanaged fisheries cost the global economy $50 billion annually in lost revenue, and Massachusetts has suffered its own share of that. The mismanagement never happens when quotas are set too low but rather when quotas, set by scientists and fisheries managers, are then overturned, challenged or undermined by politicians and fishermen who don’t want the limits.
Given the state of commercial fishing off Massachusetts, Congress should resurrect and approve the Commerce Department’s September 2012 ruling for disaster relief for the fishery. Fishermen, boat owners and others affected by this collapse should be compensated and encouraged to leave the industry, and a proposal to open 5,000 square miles of protected offshore grounds—grounds established so that stocks there could recover—must be denied.
Then, with the unavoidable damage to fishing families and communities contained, we should begin the long, hard work of restoring what we have squandered. Our goal should be the rebuilding not just of individual stocks, but of the ecosystem itself—from the ravaged bottom, dragged for decades by trawlers, to the restoration of the relationships between different levels of the ecosystem, from primary producers like plankton to apex predators like bluefin tuna. This is not impossible but it is arduous and inevitably painful, and requires long-term sacrifice. Let’s hope the managers at NOAA, and the judges who decide this issue, have the courage for that.•
Matt Rigney is the author of In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish, published by Viking/Penguin. Go to: http://www.inpursuitofgiants.com.