Point of View

A better deal for an N.C. fishery

August 5, 2012 

Black sea bass season has started for commercial fishermen in North Carolina and down the rest of the Atlantic coast. At the same time, new assessments show that stocks of this valuable fish are recovering from prior depletion.

This report is great news for the black sea bass pot fishermen who call North Carolina home. They use special trap gear or “pots” to target the fish and have been doing it for years. Unfortunately, the 2012 season will start with almost half of those fishermen eliminated under a new federal management program called “endorsements.”

Endorsements are a fishery management tool that eliminates fishermen from a specific fishery to handle overfishing by setting a minimum average of pounds of fish that fishermen must have caught in the past to receive an “endorsement” to fish for that species in the 2012 season.

In implementing this program, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council worked over many months to decide how many pounds of black sea bass a fishermen had to catch, on average, in an 11-year period to stay in the fishery. As you can imagine, this was heartbreaking to experienced fishermen in the region who had lower catch histories. For many fishermen in North Carolina, it meant that after making significant investments in special gear, for example – and years of relying on black sea bass as a source of income – they would no longer be able to participate in the fishery.

Times are tough in the South Atlantic. Commercial fishermen are barely hanging on. The seasons are getting shorter and things don’t seem to be getting any better. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) don’t want to see fishermen suffering. They don’t want to decide who wins and who loses. Many council members are fishermen themselves.

We believe that catch shares are a great option for fishermen and fish stocks. Unlike endorsements, catch shares give fishermen a tangible stake in the fishery. The fishery is divided into shares based on the fishermen’s catch history and those shares can be bought, sold or leased among the fishermen. Catch shares give fishermen choices, while endorsements only eliminate fishermen.

No matter what you believe is the best way to manage a fishery, the current system isn’t working. We cannot continue to manage by cutting fishermen’s throats. For too long, the debate about new choices for management has been dominated by vitriol and fear-mongering. We owe it to the many hard-working South Atlantic fishermen to find better solutions that keep fishermen on the water, feed their families and sustain fishing communities.

An environmental scientist and a commercial fisherman is not a pair you expect to see together, but Environmental Defense Fund is committed to working with fishermen to find solutions that make both economic sense for the fishermen and achieve sustainability for fish populations. We believe that achieving sustainable American fisheries can only happen if fishermen are a part of leading the change.

In the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen facing very similar problems came together to escape shortening seasons, depleted stocks and low profits and have rebuilt their fisheries into profitable resources with rapidly recovering populations of fish. In the Pacific, after one year, groundfish fishermen have experienced huge increases in profits and dramatic reductions in wasted fish. In New England, fishermen are successfully navigating a transition to a completely new way of doing business and will have a stronger fishery for it.

In all of these cases, change happened when fishermen came together to lead it. It’s time for fishermen here to come together to find a solution to our broken fisheries. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to future generations.

The crisis facing our North Carolina fishermen is simply unacceptable. The conversation doesn’t have to be just about catch shares, but we must start working together now to find alternatives to programs like endorsements before it is too late.

Jack Cox is a commercial fishermen and fish market owner from Morehead City. Gretchen Bath Martin, Ph.D., is a senior conservation manager with Environmental Defense Fund from Wilmington.

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