Fisheries Management Relocalized

Originally published in the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance newsletter, August 2010

by Ellen Tyler

As a local foodie interested in supporting community based food systems, one of my first investments after moving to the Bay State was to purchase a share in a Community Supported Fishery (CSF).  Operating much the same way that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares do, members in a community participate by investing in a “share” or portion of a boat’s total catch, sharing some of the risk inherent in the trade, and enjoying the freshest, best-tasting seafood around.  Since moving to Massachusetts, I have come to learn how to cook with local and seasonally available fish species firsthand through my weekly share of Cape Ann’s Fresh Catch CSF.
Moving to Maine for the summer, I looked forward to showing off some of my new recipes, but quickly learned that the Gulf of Maine is not a uniform ecosystem and what fishermen are catching changes based on very local situations.  These observations have profound implications for regional fisheries management decisions, which are currently applied like a blanket, uniformly across whole regions.

In Massachusetts, more often than not, my CSF share delivered cod.

Drawing on the memory of near collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery in the 1990s, I was tepid about filleting and eating these beautiful creatures. However, Steve Parkes, my CSF coordinator, assured me that the cod is coming back.  “We did what we were supposed to do,” he said, referring to a scaling back of the amount of cod caught from the Northwest Atlantic, “and the fish came back!  This is a story of success.”  Indeed, this success is apparent in my CSF share, where I see that fishermen are catching more cod than any other fish, and it is reflected in a New England Fishery Management Council News Release (June 25,2010) which verified: “Gulf of Maine cod is no longer overfished and is at a stock size that has not been seen in 30 years.”  But what both reports miss is that the cod stocks are not rebuilding at the same rate, or in the same way, throughout their historical range.  Instead, stocks are showing up only in distinct areas, particularly in the western Gulf of Maine where the fishermen who supply Cape Ann Fresh Catch happen to be fishing.

Many miles to the south, around Martha’s Vineyard, and many miles to the east, beyond Portland into Downeast Maine, fishermen have not witnessed the same return of cod.  I learned this first hand when, moving this summer to Maine, I again invested in a local CSF based out of the Penobscot Bay called Community Fish.  This CSF is a part of a Sentinel Fishery Groundfish Project, designed and operated by Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington.  Immediately, I was shocked by how different my experience, and the experience of this fishing community, has been.  Despite being in the same regional management jurisdiction and following the same management policies, the fishermen here are in an entirely different situation.  Between Penobscot Bay and the Canadian border, where it has been over a decade since anyone has been able to catch a marketable amount of cod or any other bottom-dwelling groundfish, the cod are not returning.

A large component of the Sentinel Fishery is to research the status of local groundfish stocks to figure out exactly why the groundfish that are showing up elsewhere are not showing up in the Penobscot Bay.   Scientists suspect that these differences have to do with genetically distinct sub-populations of cod, which are quite loyal to their home territory.  If the subpopulations in the northern Gulf were depleted, they must recover on their own schedule, and are not likely to be replenished by different populations doing well in the western Gulf of Maine around Gloucester and Boston.

Currently, all U.S. fisheries are managed through eight regional management councils.  The New England Fishery Management Council considers the Gulf of Maine as a single unit and treats fisheries within that area uniformly; but treating the whole ecosystem as one ignores the scales on which ecosystems and community-based fishermen generally operate, with negative health consequences for both groups.  Because of these mismatched scales, scientists trying to understand the impact of fishing fail to capture critical information in their regionally-focused research. Some scientists now are coming together to advocate for finer scale management, which takes into account that sub-populations of fish migrate and spawn within geographically distinct locations throughout the region.

Fishing for local markets, as in the CSF model, encourages management based on smaller areas and enables finer scale observations and data collection, which in turn helps scientists to understand marine ecosystems at multiple scales.  Local fish stocks are influenced by a multitude of interacting variables, and local fishing communities may have a useful knowledge about how, when, and where cod and other fish sort themselves into groups, contributing to the larger body of information upon which decisions are based. The successes of individual CSFs ultimately depend on healthy and diverse coastal communities and fisheries that are managed at local ecosystem scale and linked into larger regional management systems. As a shareholder in a Community Supported Fishery, I am taking an active role in helping to make such a system possible.

Ellen Parry Tyler is a second year Agriculture Food and Environment student and spent her summer working with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) as a policy intern.  In her free time, Ellen enjoys playing in, on and around the ocean, biking and going on outdoor adventures.

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