The port of New Bedford has been rocked by allegations of widespread and longstanding corruption by one of the industry’s biggest players. It is understandable that shocked fishermen, regulators, and community leaders are casting around for causes and solutions.
Some have contorted the facts to fit their arguments against sector management. The truth, however, is that this alleged criminal misconduct started decades before the transition to sectors, and exploited a far older management flaw: the lack of sufficient monitoring in the fishery. It is a key reason why the fishery continues to be in crisis and in the headlines; and in the wake of this latest scandal it must be urgently addressed.
The transition to a fishery with 100 percent electronic monitoring of boats and real dockside monitoring is the singular change that will do the most to improve our fisheries science, elevate our management, and rebuild our depleted groundfish stocks. By preventing theft and illegal discards by a few bad actors, it will also protect the vast majority of fishermen who play by the rules.
Regulation — whether of farms, factories, coal mines, or a fishery — is essential to protect honest players, consumers and resources. But what good are sensible regulations if everyone knows the truth: Nobody is really watching, nobody is really enforcing the rules, and the few dishonest players rarely get caught.
Among many industry observers, the recent arrest of New Bedford’s longtime industry figure Carlos Rafael was both terrible news — no one wants to believe that this scale of alleged theft and environmental damage has taken place for decades — and a cause for some hope: Perhaps it could be a forcing event that finally moves us to a new and effective system of monitoring. We should all work to rise to that challenge.
The critical next steps to help fishermen, scientists and the fish are straightforward and clear.
First, we must reject misguided calls to weaken monitoring even further. Remarkably, the New England Fishery Management Council has proposed, via something called Framework 55, that the observer coverage rate be reduced from the currently inadequate 24 percent to just 14 percent — leaving 86 percent of trips unobserved.
As a result, we won’t know what is being caught and where, what is plentiful and what is scarce, and what is being thrown back and wasted. This will make the system even more vulnerable to abuse, and make the science needed to manage the fishery even more difficult to achieve. Concerned fishermen, scientists, conservationists and regulators must all make clear that such a change would be entirely unacceptable.
Second, Congress has provided funding for electronic monitoring. EDF has advocated for more than year that funds be used to put video cameras on each groundfish boat to record what is caught, what is kept and what is discarded. Fishermen would no longer have to bear the burden of expensive at-sea monitors. And finally some modern tools will be in place to provide usable data to researchers and regulators.
Third, we must explore what it will take to move to a full retention fishery. This may not be feasible for every boat, but where it is feasible it could eliminate waste, simplify monitoring, and solve several other significant challenges. This includes eliminating some of the challenges fishermen face on choke species, while also putting more money in their pockets.
Finally, we must move forward in scaling up alternative electronic monitoring systems for boats where full retention is not feasible. Pilots of an electronic monitoring audit approach have been underway on small boats for several years. Those efforts should be continued, supported, and quickly taken to scale.
New England’s fish don’t belong to the fishermen. They don’t belong to the environmentalists, and they don’t belong to the government. The fish in our waters are a part of all of our heritage, a crucial piece of our natural world, and they must be a legacy for our children and their children. We cannot close our eyes to the challenges we face and sacrifice our oceans.
Johanna Thomas is senior director for Environmental Defense Fund. Joshua Wiersma, Ph.D., is Northeast fisheries manager for Environmental Defense Fund.