, Salem, MA

May 25, 2009

Our view: Fishermen victims of faulty research

Supposedly, the intent of fishing regulations is to preserve a resource — to establish limits on the number of fish caught today so there will still be fish to catch on all the tomorrows to come.

In short, the aim is, or ought to be, to maintain a sustainable fishery.

Why, then, does the National Marine Fisheries Service — the federal agency charged with regulating the fishery — seem bent more on putting fishermen out of business than on maintaining the fishery?

Fishermen have been complaining about this for years, as regulation by NMFS and its enforcement arm, the U.S. Coast Guard, has become increasingly draconian and punitive. The "Interim Rule" governing the current fishing year, which cut allowable days at sea down to three weeks in some cases, was calculated to reduce fishing "capacity" — that means putting real people out of real jobs — by 60 percent.

And now it is not just the fishermen themselves who are objecting.

A recent review of existing research data and the findings of boat captains done by UMass Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology, found the Interim Rule and the science on which it is based to be "costly and misleading."

The report was produced in conjunction with the state Division of Marine Fisheries for Gov. Deval Patrick.

It found that NMFS hadn't done much rigorous research to support the limits it imposed.

"It turns out that the inferences on overfishing and the overfished status of the stocks are based on minimal observations," the report stated, noting that there were only about eight tows done in the 2008 fall survey that led NMFS to estimate the strength of the winter flounder stocks.

Fishermen have complained that they are being regulated by people who don't fish. Now it turns out those people don't do much research either.

The report also faults NMFS for regulations limiting all fishing based on the condition of the weakest stock. And it notes that the regulations don't take into account the habits of the winter flounder — that they could be protected if the regulations simply prohibited fishing when they are not active.

"Winter flounder catch can be virtually eliminated by ... avoiding fishing in time-space locations where winter flounder are known to occur," it stated.

Regulations can be defended if they are based on objective, comprehensive science. But there is accumulating evidence that NMFS starts with an agenda, and then shapes its "research" to support the conclusions it wants.

It has already decided that there is a need for much less fishing. But it looks like objective science may be saying differently. This is one more reason for Gov. Patrick and the state's legislative delegation to force NMFS to change a regulatory approach that is destroying an industry.