The Hartford Courant – By Gregory B. Hladky – May 25th, 2016
Connecticut’s congressional delegation is leading a renewed push for reform of federal commercial fishing quotas critics say are out of date, wasteful, fail to respond to climate change and unfair to New England fishermen.
Warming ocean temperatures are pushing vast numbers of fish like black bass, summer flounder and scup farther north into New England waters, according to the delegation’s letter to federal officials, but old fishing quotas severely restrict how many of those fish commercial boats from this region are allowed to keep.
The out-of-date quota system means that fishermen from North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland are allowed to take much larger numbers of those types of fish, even when they come to New England’s offshore waters to net them, according to a joint letter by Connecticut and Massachusetts members of Congress.
In a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, the legislators complained that “fishermen coming from as far away as North Carolina can legally take sometimes more than ten times [the allowed catch] of New England vessels.”
“We think the trend of out-of-state fishermen moving north [to fish off New England’s coast]… has just been accelerating,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. He said North Carolina boats are seen fishing off the eastern end of Long Island Sound “all the time now.”
“The Department of Commerce has authority to correct this hugely unfair and unproductive system,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Tuesday. “You would be hard put to devise a system more fraught with defects than this one.”
But fishermen and politicians from mid-Atlantic states have lobbied hard to keep the quotas as they are.
The battle over these fishing quotas and regulations has been going on for years, but Blumenthal said the chance for real reform may be better now because President Obama is nearing the end of his term.
“It could be a great parting policy step for this administration to bring some rationality and scientific common sense to this system,” said Blumenthal.
Courtney said federal legislation intended to enact some reform of the old quota-regulatory system passed the U.S. House but has stalled in the Senate. He said the letter to the commerce secretary is a change in tactics, and Courtney said he believes it is the first time congressional members from Connecticut and Massachusetts have joined together to push for administrative reforms.
Environmentalists agree that the current regulatory system needs reform and one key reason is that an estimated 80 percent of fish netted and returned to the ocean by commercial boats are dead by the time they hit the water again. State experts say hundreds of thousands of pounds of edible fish are caught and then thrown away as “bycatch” by commercial fishermen in New England waters every year.
A federal lawsuit was filed last year by the environmental activist group Oceana to force reforms in the way commercial bycatch is monitored and controlled. Gib Brogan, a spokesman for Oceana, said the suit remains entangled in legal maneuvering.
Quotas for different species of fish are set by regional councils along the Atlantic coast, with each council made up of representatives from states in that particular region.
Black bass, scup and summer flounder are regulated by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council because those species years ago were primarily found on the Mid-Atlantic coastline, and fishermen from that region were granted consistently large quotas.
Now that the greatest “biomass” of those species has shifted to northern waters, Connecticut and other New England states want to have a say in quotas for those fish. Last year, Connecticut commercial boats were limited to 1 percent of all black sea bass caught, or about 22,000 pounds.
“The bulk of the biomass is up here,” said David Simpson, head of the marine fisheries division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “The resource is moving north.”
New England currently has only one representative on the Mid-Atlantic Council, while states like North Carolina and Virginia have multiple votes. “The status quo works for those [Mid-Atlantic] states,” said Simpson.
Simpson said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the federal commerce department, has significant influence over the way the regional fisheries councils operate. He said NOAA, “given enough pressure,” could convince the Mid-Atlantic Council to change its quota system.
Brogan agrees that the current regulatory system isn’t keeping up with the changes in fish populations. But he and other Oceana officials don’t believe “that a simple reallocation of quotas or representation on the councils is going to solve this issue.”