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May 1, 2002

Real Life versus Virtual Reality

How would you feel if the government raised the speed limit to 120mph but you weren't permitted to drive? Then you were told it may be unsafe, but everyone must drive at two or three times the old speed limit to see what happens? That about sums up what the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is telling fishermen with their proposed changes to biomass targets. This is why the Massachusetts Fishermen's Partnership (MFP) takes exception to the revised biomass targets for groundfish recommended by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). These targets establish theoretical fishing levels that could cause stock collapse because they exceed landing levels that are historically sustainable.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) proposal to revise biomass targets for groundfish in New England has resulted in the doubling or more of the original biomass targets for 5 stocks (cod, haddock and redfish). These new levels would make 12 of the 18 groundfish stocks overfished by definition. Rebuilding to these new levels may require that fishing stop in the short-term, and ironically, they suggest future levels of allowable fishing mortality which have been proven to collapse the stocks in the past. For example, Gulf of Maine cod stocks collapsed each of the three times the proposed new level was reached in the past one hundred years. The proposed target for Georges Bank haddock is also higher than any level observed in the past 70 years.

Even the March 19 "NMFS Final Report of the Working Group on Re-Evaluation of Biological Reference Points for New England Groundfish" agrees that, "It is possible that these stocks cannot meet long term targets without recruitment that will rarely occur even if fishing is stopped." If the stocks can only reach these ideal recruitment levels rarely and there is no evidence that these levels can be maintained under current environmental conditions, then why are the scientists creating this management crisis? Sustainable yields should be the primary focus and are a requirement under the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA).

The NESFC is proposing to manage fisheries based on theory, not data. Data collection has been very limited, and is not adequate to support the new theoretical goals. It is very unwise to attempt to achieve maximum theoretical yield without any evidence that these theoretical levels are sustainable.

Telling fishermen that they must rebuild stocks to reach harvest levels above historic sustainable maximums is sheer folly. It pulls the road to recovery right out from under the industry, which has endured so many restrictions and closures to get there. These speed limits have been paying off with hard returns and rebuilding stocks. Fisheries management is not a virtual reality computer game. When scientists insist on experimenting with adaptive fisheries management to see how close they can get to a maximum level before the stocks inevitably collapse, they are playing a dangerous game with communities and human lives.

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