Heading East

Port of Bedford Vessels at one of the biggest ports in the US - the Port of Bedford in New England, where over $400 million of commercial landings are made every year

In the first of a two-part series focusing on America’s fishing industry, Adrian Tatum takes a look at some of the challenges ahead for the sector and assesses life for fishermen on the East Coast.

America has always been a country very keen to protect its heritage. Never has this been more prevalent than in the commercial fishing sector which is still largely based on community involvement with fishermen that have entered the profession, following family generations before them.

Interestingly, family traditions and communities are at the heart of a new coalition launched last year in America and featuring a number of organisations and fishing companies from the East Coast, as well as representing the whole of the American commercial fishing sector. The National Coalition of Fishing Communities (NCFC) was set up to ensure that the challenges of modern communications for the commercial fishing industry in America is met.

The NCFC is a unique partnership of organisations and companies involved in the seafood sector and is ‘dedicated’ to transmitting the voices of fishermen and their communities. NCFC says it will ensure that fisheries managers, scientists, academics and elected officials understand the position of its members and address their concerns. This, it says, will be accomplished through dialogue, education and marketing and communications.

The Coalition is made up of different types of communities. In addition to municipalities with economic, social, and cultural ties to the fishing industry, NCFC includes associations that represent, and are supported directly by, working commercial fishing families; businesses that are involved in the harvesting, processing, distributing, marketing, and serving of seafood; and individuals in fishing communities across the country who see first-hand the necessity of local knowledge informing policy.

The NCFC says, “We are committed to the tenets of National Standard Eight of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. While cognizant of conservation needs, regulations must take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities. Management measures should utilise the best economic and social data to provide for the sustained participation of fishing communities, and to minimise adverse economic impacts on such communities to the extent possible.” 

It also questions current fisheries science: “Fisheries management must be conducted using the best available science, which does not mean the best government science. Often, the best available science is deemed, by appropriate technical review panels, to be inadequate for use in informing fisheries management decisions. In these cases, we believe that fisheries managers must carefully balance the precautionary principle with the Federal mandate to consider the economic needs of fishing communities, and the working families who depend on our ocean’s resources.”

When you start to study the American fishing industry, it is easy to see why there is a need for such a coalition, to attempt to help bring everything together. America is a large country with a huge coastline and a diverse fishing and seafood sector. It also has a number of successful fishing associations and membership organisations that have both grown in number and stature over the past few years.

The North Carolina Fisheries Association (NCFA) is a good example. Established as long ago as 1952, the association was started to serve fishing families by helping promote seafood and protecting their heritage. Over 60 years later and the association is still lobbying on behalf of fishermen in North Carolina and engages in many education and promotional activities. “The NCFA still believes the commercial fishing begins and ends with families”, says the association.

The East Coast is also home to the country’s leading fishing port - the Port of New Bedford. With landings of over $400 million every year, the port has become the seafood hub for the New England region comprising of over 30 processors and distributors. It also supports New England’s own fishing fleet. Nantucket Shoals, Georges Bank and the Great South Channel- are fishing grounds still blessed with abundant sea scallops and an array of fish.

Each year, nearly 50 million pounds of sea scallops land on New Bedford docks, making the city America’s most profitable port for over 10 years. The Port of New Bedford is a full-service port, with ship chandleries, ice houses, welders, net designers, boatyards, gear builders, engineers, maritime attorneys, insurance brokers, settlement houses and every other conceivable shoreside marine support business. It is also home to one of the nation’s last remaining fish auctions, and numerous other offloading facilities.

Vessels from every major East Coast port unload their catch here; including every important commercial species from cod and haddock to sea scallops. During the height of the season, 500,000 pounds of scallop meat cross New Bedford docks in a single day. The Port of New Bedford is on the leading edge of fisheries science and research, housing UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology -better known as SMAST. This internationally acclaimed marine studies program has played a leading role in current fishery science and management, as well as ocean modelling.

But while success on the East Coast has been considerable over the last decade, like any country around the world, America still faces some significant challenges.

According to a recent major report by the Hamilton Project in the US, estimates suggest that the economic contribution of the US fishing industry is nearly $90 billion annually, and supports over one and a half million jobs. But the report also warns that “a host of challenges threaten fishing’s viability as an American industry”.

The report cites resource management as a key concern facing US fisheries. “Since fish are a shared natural resource, fisheries face traditional ‘tragedy of the commons’ challenges in which the ineffective management of the resource can result in its depletion”, it says.

In America, advances in ocean fishery management over the past four decades have led to improved sustainability, but more remains to be done: 17% of American fisheries are classified as overfished, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and even those with adequate fish stocks may benefit economically from more efficient management structures. Meeting that resource management challenge can lead to improved economic activity and better sustainability in the future, says the report.

Unlike other industries dependent on natural resource extraction, such as the oil and logging industries, fishing generally takes place without well-defined property rights, says the report. While an oil well or an acre of timberland typically belongs to a single owner, a patch of lake or ocean is common property, open to all. The lack of well-defined property rights in the fishing industry can create incentives that discourage sustainability, it adds.

“Consider an open access fishery, where fishing can occur without any regulation or agreements. In such a setting, a fishing company has a strong incentive to continue catching fish until it is no longer cost effective for the particular firm to do so. Sensible management of overfished stocks by any individual fishing company will likely be offset by additional catch and landings by another company. In this free-for-all, if the fish are harvested faster than the population can be replenished, stocks will inevitably decline either until they are exhausted or until it is no longer cost effective to harvest them, likely harming both consumers and fishermen,” according to the Hamilton Report.

Until the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was passed in 1976, there was no concerted federal effort to regulate fishing. After fish stocks continued to decline over the 1970s and 1980s, exacerbating economic hardship for workers in the fishing industry, the Magnuson-Stevens Act was amended in 1996 and again in 2006 in attempts to restore fish stocks.

Devices like electronic fish finders that use radar and sonar, synthetic fibres to make stronger nets, and motorised power blocks to place and haul in nets all allowed the catch yield to increase. This, along with significant productivity and demand trends, elevated the rate of fish extraction relative to fish stocks’ ability to replenish, leading to faster rates of depletion. Only with these dramatic reductions in available supply did efforts to better manage fish stocks increase, says the report.

With the goal of improved economic and ecological sustainability of US fisheries, several governmental and non-profit organisations, as well as a growing number of economists and natural scientists, have proposed catch shares - a management system based on property rights - as an alternative to traditional management structures. It is catch shares that is the subject of much scrutiny in the Hamilton Report on American Fisheries.

Catch shares
All catch shares enable fishery management councils to establish the total amount of fish that can be caught based on sustainability criteria. But catch shares differ in their implementation, says the report. One version of catch shares assigns tradable fishing rights to individuals, giving each fisherman a share of the total allowable catch. This design aims to encourage fishermen with low costs to purchase shares from those with high costs, improving catch efficiency while compensating those who choose to sell their shares, explains the report.

Another type of catch shares allows a group of fishermen to explicitly cooperate on harvest strategies, co-management, and marketing. And yet another type gives a fishing community an exclusive privilege to harvest a designated area of the ocean.

Since they were first implemented in 1990, 15 catch share programs have been adopted in America. Interestingly, these programmes were not imposed by government regulators: they were implemented voluntarily by regional councils, the membership of which includes the fishermen themselves, the report goes on to say. Today, roughly half of the fish caught in the United States are harvested from a fishery under catch share management.

The report says that the primary justification for catch share management, according to many economists, is that it discourages depletion and leads to more sustainable management of fish stocks. For example, one study found that catch shares on average reduced extractions from roughly twice the efficient level to the efficient level. Researchers have also noted that catch shares reduce bycatch - non-targeted species harvested accidentally - and lead to improved ecological health of the ocean.

Proponents argue that catch shares also eliminate the so-called race to fish, and dramatically elongate the fishing season, leading to gains in long-term employment opportunities among fishermen, higher safety and fewer fishing deaths, and improved availability of fresh fish for consumers. Many economists believe that by allowing trade between fishermen, catch shares can encourage the most efficient fishermen to participate in the market, potentially leading to lower costs and higher profits, says the report.

Between 2000 and 2012, fish sustainability increased by 72% as revenues grew by 4%. Over the past 15 years, 34 out of 230 US marine fish stocks have recovered from an overfished status. Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, most US fisheries are not overfished, although a handful still struggle to end overfishing

In its conclusion, the report urges the American fishing industry to continue to focus on rebuilding stocks and developing management techniques. “Given these significant effects on the economy, rebuilding fish stocks and managing fisheries effectively should be a part of our national economic agenda. Despite the gains in sustainability over the past three decades, overfishing and mismanagement of resources continue to threaten the US fishing industry and coastal communities. Improved management of fishing resources can benefit commercial and recreational fishermen, the ecological health of our oceans, and American consumers alike. This improved management will likely be achieved through innovative policies that implement economic incentives to promote efficiency and long-run sustainability”, it says.

Export versus import

Commercial fishery landings of edible fish and shellfish were 9.5 billion pounds in 2014. Over 80% of the total commercial catch was finfish, but shellfish represented more than 50% of the total value.

The United States ranks as the third-largest consumer of seafood in the world, following only China and Japan. In 2012, Americans consumed over 4.5 billion pounds of seafood, or 14.4 pounds of fish and shellfish per the average American.

In 2013, the United States exported 1.5 million tons of seafood, valued above $5 billion (NOAA Fisheries 2013). Fresh and frozen items made up the majority of exports and consisted mainly of salmon, lobster, and surimi. Much of the domestic fish catch is exported rather than consumed at home due to a variety of factors, such as inexpensive foreign processing of fish, seasonal availability, and demand for different varieties of the same fish.


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