Champion of small-scale fishermen

Lobster boats are moored in safe harbor near Stonington, Maine. Credit: Gabriel Nordyke/Marine Photobank
Lobster boats are moored in safe harbor near Stonington, Maine. Credit: Gabriel Nordyke/Marine Photobank
Robin Alden
Robin Alden
Steamed Maine lobsters, ready to eat. Credit: Cecilia Talopp/Marine Photobank
Steamed Maine lobsters, ready to eat. Credit: Cecilia Talopp/Marine Photobank

Menakhem Ben-Yami interviews Robin Alden, Executive Director of Penobscot East Resource Center and member of Maine Sea Grant's Policy Advisory Committee.

Ms Alden is also a former Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources and a public member of the New England Fishery Management Council.

Located in Maine, USA, Penobscot East Resource Center was established in 2003 as non-profit NGO with a mission to secure a future for the fishing communities of eastern Maine, and promote the community-based approach to resource management.

WF&A: Robin Alden, what's so unique about the eastern area that it needs a separate resource center?

RA: Fishing for lobster and for groundfish is a tremendous part of the heritage of eastern Maine, providing a living in fishing communities. The unique area from the islands of Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border is a 150 mile stretch of coastal fishing communities with the most fishery-dependent counties on the east coast and 50 fishing communities with their history, their culture and their future, have few alternatives to the fishing trade. It's one of the few remaining community based fisheries in the USA, where the traditional culture is still virtually intact and children are expected to follow their great grandfathers' way - in small owner-operated boats going fishing every day, six days a week. Our role is to provide a long term presence, contributing tools, skills and resources as needed by the fishermen and other community members and their families, and to integrate fishermen's voice in the efforts for sustaining the diversity of fisheries and conservation of the eastern Gulf of Maine ecosystem. Fishermen stewardship will result in more fish and more opportunity for local small-scale fishing businesses.

WF&A: You participated in the recent NOAA conference dedicated to the Magnuson-Stevens Law. It is praised, or ostensibly, mainly but not only on the part of conservationist NGOs, for returning profitability to fishing through output management by TACs and maximum sustainable yield that has led to reducing overfishing of many stocks and rebuilding some.

RA: My criticism of the Magnuson Stevens Act differs from that of many people. I have two principal critiques: it has not served smaller coastal fishing communities well and at the same time the management under the Act in New England failed to restore groundfish, our most iconic fishery, presently at record lows. While some people criticise the Act because it requires highly restrictive conservation when stocks are low - I don't. Instead, I criticise the Act for enabling management that depends too much on one approach to conservation: catch limits.

WF&A: The management based on this law, has been indeed strongly criticised by fishermen and some scientists, for either being based on often inadequate science that does not recognise the complexity of the stock structure of some resources or for leading to consolidation of fishing rights in the hands of few and mighty, on the expense of many smaller scale fishermen-owners and crews. What's your opinion on these conflicting opinions?

RA: I actually agree with both criticisms, although it is the application of the law, not the law itself in many cases. It is undeniable that consolidation occurs under catch shares and that the loss of access to fishing rights and the cost of quota shares destroys the smaller fleet. This result is sometimes touted as positive, increasing survivor's profitability. I view this as a simplistic and short-sighted view. Our fishermen move seasonally back and forth among fisheries taking small catches. The second problem with catch shares is that very often we don't get the catch-limit figures right because the overall catch limits system doesn't recognise that there are many smaller fish sub-stocks, each of which need a catch limit. Many fishermen and managers in New England feel let down because they were sold a promise that if they stayed within catch limits, there would be more fish in the future.

WF&A: What's your impression regarding the prospect of the law being amended to make it more flexible and less painful for fishermen? How could the results of the conference affect the Bay of Maine fisheries?

RA: I told the Managing our Nation's Fisheries Conference in May that small-scale, community-based fishermen with their diversified fishing operations are critical players in better stewardship and fishery management because of the recognition we all now have about the complexity of fish stocks and the uncertainty due to ocean's dynamics. Anyone paying even casual attention to news about New England’s fishing industry knows that the federal government’s efforts to manage our nation’s fisheries have not served small coastal fishing communities well. This fact and scientific discoveries of the last 40 years provide us an opportunity to revamp the Magnuson Stevens Act to create policies that truly promote both sustainable fish stocks and fishing communities.

The upcoming reauthorisation of the Magnuson Stevens Act is a chance to create room for different voices in federal fisheries management, including those fishermen who have been consolidated out and those who are still fishing. The Act should facilitate tapping coastal fishermen’s knowledge about fish dynamics and changes in the marine ecosystem, and position them as partners with NMFS in taking care of the ocean's productive areas.

The Magnuson Stevens Act should prioritise ongoing adaptation and learning, and, in highly productive nearshore areas, facilitate creative collaboration between regulators and local fishermen, departing from the ‘top down’, regulator-knows-all established by the current law. This would also be a culture shift for fishermen: to be active collaborators participating in data gathering and information sharing.

To achieve that goal we need to stop applying outdated tunnel-vision output-oriented models to an increasingly dynamic ecosystem. There is a better approach based on new science and adaptive management. The current basis for allocating quota – how much of each species fishermen can catch – rests on stock assessments for large water bodies, like the Gulf of Maine. If you do just that and set an overall quota, you create an incentive to pulse fish those sub-populations that are abundant. Yet new research reveals that there is no such thing as a single population of cod in the Gulf of Maine. Instead, studies show that there are many sub-populations that are used for setting quotas, each distinct to particular bays and reefs, with unique migration corridors. This explains why groundfish can be present in certain parts of the Gulf and virtually extinct in others. Setting catch limits based on large regional scale sampling overlooks localised depletion, and makes fishermen fish aggressively where the fish are. In so doing, while abiding by catch limits, they've unwittingly overfished the productive sub-populations one by one. This provides one explanation of why the National Marine Fisheries Service has just announced a 70% reduction in the allowable catch of groundfish. The federal system needs a better methodology to assess these finer scale fish populations in order to produce fishing rules that provide for sustainability for each stock in the stunningly complex and changing ocean.

WF&A: If so, you don't believe that fishing is the only factor responsible for fluctuations in stocks abundance and availability and that just controlling output is sufficient for fishery management?

RA: Certainly not. Also, I do not believe that catch limits alone are adequate for good conservation and sustainability for fish stocks and fishing communities. For example, today, the effect of climate change is increasing the complexity and uncertainty in fishery management. Not that I despair at this complexity; I think that this new knowledge of the realities of a changing ocean, makes us realise that it was a false hope that just controlling catch was enough to keep humans from depleting fisheries. We need to protect habitat, juveniles, and breeders, in addition to limiting catch. And, because things occur at such a fine scale and are changing, we need lots of information and feedback loops so that we don't make big mistakes, which we make in the current very ponderous system. But I do not think that the system should be more responsive just to raise quotas. That's not my critique. My critique is that we often get the scale wrong. Since the 1970s when the Act was drafted, based on the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), we have learned much more about the marine environment and fine scale marine ecology. We now know, for example, that fish like cod home to their natal spawning areas, as do small reef fishes in the middle of the Pacific.

WF&A: So, what course of action you want the US fishery management to assume?

RA: In my opinion, it needs to adopt an adaptive, learning approach to management. This will require changes in the Magnuson Act that allow development of more management layers, comparable to the way we have towns, counties, states and the federal government. Also, Federal managers need to work directly with states, NGOs and fishermen's stewardship groups, so that better-informed decisions can be fed into our regional management structure. One thing that is currently missing in our fisheries management system is a way to get good, local observations about external conditions into the larger-scale federal scientific process in a timely and cost-effective way. This brings me back to the role of diversified, community-scale fishermen. In contrast to sporadic or intermittent information from research vessels, coastal fishermen are the only continuing source of information about inshore and coastal ecological events and conditions. Fishermen can provide real-time information about and insight into the fine-scale changes and that cannot be observed by the federal scientists operating at a regional level.

WF&A: I see that your main attention is directed at the coastal, small-scale fishery.

RA.: Yes, because most of the productivity of our fisheries is dependent on the coastal shelf, nearshore and inshore. We have learned that when fishermen and regulators work together, they design management strategies that fishermen support and abide by. The Maine lobster fishery is well-known example. More recently, the state, together with fishermen and assisted by Penobscot East Resource Center, have been working to restore and manage nearshore sea scallops with better results than any past efforts. If we allow federal management to put in one soup bowl, small-scale inshore, together with industrial, offshore fishery, we will not be able to get the value from coastal fisheries, nor the information we need to manage them appropriately. But to do this, fishermen also need to have access rights to fish in an alternating manner within a breadth of species, according to their biological features in their local area, so that both the fishery and the management operate at ecosystem level. The correct business strategy of a coastal fisherman fishing from a small day-boat is, depending on season and availability, to fish a variety of species - for example shrimp or scallops in winter, cod, hake, flounder in the spring or summer, and perhaps lobster in the summer and fall – a strategy negatively affected by the current federal management system. Under the current quota system, many day-boat fishermen have lost access to groundfish even when the stocks do recover. Since they can’t participate in the federally-managed fishery, their knowledge and historical experience are being lost. To enlist small-scale fishermen in stewardship will require modifying our access rules. Amending the Magnuson Act so that the system integrates fishermen's knowledge and participation is a first step toward such management decisions.

If we achieve this, we will be building ecosystem management from the bottom up, which, I believe, would result in a better conservation outcome and allow us to find a scale at which we can have vibrant and sustainable fishing communities. There is no longer room for a blame game - we all live, work and depend upon the same complex environment, and we all recognise that change is constant and inexorable. Simply ratcheting down catch limits based on outdated models is not enough. Federal fishery management should be restructured to employ 21st century science and management tactics that prioritise stewardship through ongoing learning and adaptation.

WF&A: Thank you and good luck.


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