Will New Regulations Doom RI’s Fishing Industry?

Monday, February 04, 2013


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Recent cuts to cod production are just the latest setback for the fishing industry in Rhode Island.

When the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) voted last week to impose a 77-percent cut on cod fishery limits in the Gulf of Maine for the 2013 fishing cycle and beyond, the reaction was one met with shock, awe and concern in many of the region’s coastal communities.

The move, many argued, would kill fishing communities across New England.

But while it appears Rhode Island will largely be able to weather the storm from this particular bit of news, the fact remains that the state’s commercial fishing industry is still suffering from a number of other problems that don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

Bad News, Good News

Janet Coit, the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), says the Ocean State won’t fare quite as bad as some of its neighbors in the region with the NEFMC decision to cut the amount of cod New England fisherman can catch by 77 percent in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent in Georges Bank.

“The groundfish cuts will negatively impact RI commercial fishermen, but to a far lesser extent than fishermen from the other New England states, as this fishery is a smaller percentage of our total landings,” Coit said.

What helps the Ocean State is its diverse fleet.

Fishermen in Rhode Island are fortunate in that they have a lot of options and don’t rely solely on one specific species to make their living.

“Most of the boats here don’t rely on just groundfish, a lot of them, especially bigger boats, they have flukes, trout, seabass, squid so they rely on a few different things,” said Frank Blount, an at-large member with the NEFMC. “The fleet is definitely smaller than it was a few years back but it’s not quite in quite as bad a shape as some of the rest of New England.”

Blount, the owner of the Frances Fleet set of four boats in the Port of Galilee in Narragansett, says it’s another move by the NEFMC that will have a noticeable impact on the state as the board ruled to lift the “prohibited” status on the southern New England winter flounder stock.

“Most of the New England ports are taking probably a 20-30 percent cutback estimated on their groundfish revenues which is going to be huge.” he said. “I think it total is going to be, it’s estimated to be around a $6 million loss whereas Rhode Island, I don’t know if it was broken down for Point Judith or if it was Rhode Island overall but opening up the winter flounder, it’s estimated that Rhode Island’s landings are actually going to go up by a couple million dollars.”

Not Enough to Reverse a Trend

Even with the positive swing that opening up that particular species will bring, it still won’t be enough to stop what has been a tough few years for the industry.

Beset by major storms, the effects of climate change and increased gas prices, Rhode Island’s commercial fishing industry has seen a steady decline in recent years.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to the industry rebounding might be something it has no control over at all.

Recruitment, also known as the number of fish produced each year, has steadily declined for many species and has led to cuts and limits like the one the NEFMC imposed last week.

“We need better recruitment in some of the fisheries so until we have that, it’s very tough for anybody to relax regulations,” Blount said.

Poor recruitment was a major deciding factor in the cut to cod limits and serves as the latest example of what can happen when a problem continues to worsen to unsustainable levels.

“The Council enacted these cuts based on the latest science which confirms that the stocks are in poor health,” Coit said.

Coit added that the cuts were done to comply with the federal Magnuson Act, which is meant to prevent overfishing and rebuilding depleted stocks.

“These cut-backs were anticipated last September, and were the basis of the federal fishery disaster declaration issued by the Secretary of Commerce,” she said. “That declaration was prompted by requests from all of the New England Governors, including Governor Chafee. Unfortunately, Congress did not include fishery disaster relief in the recently enacted appropriation that focused largely on Superstorm Sandy.”

RI’s Real Problem: Science

Science continues to be the biggest obstacle to RI fishermen as studies and research can provide a wide range of opinions on the number of fish available. That, in turn, has a heavy influence on the limits placed on individual species.

“People are always saying they need better science and we’ve had some big fluctuations,” Blount said. “We’ve been told the cod stock is in good shape and then it comes out that it’s in bad shape and there are other big fluctuations there. What causes that in the science? I’m not 100 percent sure. We’re told we have to use the best available science at the time.”

Blount says another problem related to the science is just how often studies are done.

“We have to have science that’s more adaptive but quicker because the science center is only so big,” he said. “There are so many stocks so when you’re only doing stock assessments on an individual stock, you can have some big swings and if you have some good recruitment over a two-year period or three-year period, you may not know that and you’re still taking cutbacks based on old information.”

Blount says lifting or changing other restrictions could also help Rhode Island fishermen.

With daily limits and trip limits imposed, many fishermen are struggling to make enough on a particular trip to justify going out in the first place.
It doesn’t help when the price of gas continues to rise.

“Fuel prices are killing it,” he said. “There’s no doubt. It’s even worse when you have a restricted catch and fuel prices are quadruple what they used to be. Fuel is by far one of the worst things and so even if the quotas going up and your daily limit doesn’t change much, on an individual basis it doesn’t seem to help a lot.”

Still, Blount says he’s optimistic about the state of fishing in Rhode Island and, if nothing else, the news last week wasn’t all bad for the Ocean State, even as the rest of New England ponders its future.

“Although there are severe cutbacks and things are bad, the flounder, that is big news for Rhode Island,” he said. “Rhode Island is one of the only bright spots that came out in the stats the other day and I think it was lost on a few people but there will be some opportunity here, even with what’s getting cut back.”


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