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SouthCoast Today - A Perfect Time to Talk About Groundfish Solutions

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By: Emilie Litsinger

This coming Monday, Sen. John Kerry will hold a hearing on the state of Massachusetts' fishing industry, to "examine the first year of the catch share fisheries management plan, including its social and economic impacts, and discuss constructive steps forward to improve its outcomes."

Sen. Kerry and the other members of the Massachusetts delegation should be applauded for their tireless work in helping the state's fishermen. The hearing will raise many legitimate concerns about the New England groundfish fishery and how decisions were made in the past. This open forum is also the perfect time to talk about solutions: improvements to the sector program to help more fishermen succeed in this new management system.

It's been well over a year since the New England groundfish fishery underwent a substantial shift in management and began operating as sectors, or cooperative-like groups that share an annual allocation of fish. At the same time, a separate rule went into effect requiring groundfish fishermen to begin operating under strict catch limits.

The New England fishing industry has been struggling for decades. Although the new sector system hasn't provided an instant solution to the decline in fishing vessels and jobs, the program has led to other improvements on the water and at the dock, bringing hope of stability. With a year of experience in how the system is working, it is now time to focus on some commonsense solutions to ensure the system works effectively for as many fishermen as possible.

In particular, there are important changes to the program that can help smaller-scale operators and fishing communities. Because fishermen are operating businesses, they need certainty; without it, the fishery cannot stabilize nor allow for fishermen to plan for the long term. Across the board, fishermen are concerned about the destabilizing effect of not knowing which regulatory or financial changes will be coming -- so the sooner these changes are made, the better. Most of these changes have already been supported by Sen. Kerry and other members of the New England delegation. We hope that as an outcome of Monday's hearing, there can be agreement on how to move forward on the following priorities:

Place reasonable limits on how much fishing quota any entity can own or control: Historically, 20 percent of the operators have landed 80 percent of the catch, but the specter of the fishery being controlled by even fewer operators is avoidable. There are many ways that "accumulation limits" can be set in order to accommodate previous investments. Political will and a unified sense of purpose are needed right now to achieve this important social and economic fix.

Reduce the high costs of at-sea observers: Ask any fishermen: One of the biggest fears is that they will have to shoulder the costs of at-sea observers at such high costs that it will keep them tied at the docks. While there is strong support in concept for both lowering costs and making sure that costs are phased in gradually, translating that support into reality will take concerted effort.

Put technology to work: Electronic monitoring programs, shown to be the most cost efficient, should be adopted as quickly as possible where stakeholders and agencies agree that they are effective. We have an opportunity to build a state-of-the-art monitoring system tailored to the needs of the fleet; working together can make this a reality.

Provide greater access to underused fish stocks: With unified support by members of Congress, NOAA, and the New England Fishery Management Council, regulations restricting access to rebuilt stocks can be reviewed and revised as needed so that groundfishermen can access previously restricted fishing grounds where key stocks are once again thriving. This is the sort of immediate measure that can give fishermen what they need: access to underutilized fish.

We congratulate Sen. Kerry and the other members of Congress for organizing and contributing to this ongoing discussion. In the days ahead, we look forward to continuing to work with them, the fishermen and other concerned citizens to turn these suggestions into reality on the water.

With some refinement, the sector program can work even better for fishermen. Let's give it a chance to do so.


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