The regulators have their data, fishermen need their own – and a plan


The ferment in the fishing community, in reaction to threats to the industry’s health and to the internal contraction among participants and within markets, began several years ago and began accelerating recently. In news reports this morning, The Times describes legal action by Dukes County fishermen to derail the Cape Wind proposal for Nantucket Sound, an effort by Island lobstermen to strengthen the Vineyard seafood brand as an adjunct to marketing on- and off-Island, and the organization of an effort to describe the implications of a proposed suspension of lobstering in nearby waters.

Vineyard Wild Caught is the message in support of the brand, which will be promoted by the operators of 12 lobstermen. Wes Brighton, one of the 12 and an organizer of the marketing effort, told Times writer Dan Cabot, “We want the public to know that there is still a thriving small-boat, owner-operated commercial fishing industry on the Island. When fishing is practiced and regulated in a sustainable way, it is not only sustainable environmentally, but also economically, socially, and culturally. The value of those three factors goes well beyond the price difference of a local vs. non-local lobster or fish (never mind the freshness).”

The existence of the lobstering business here, which supplies only some of the lobsters sold on-Island, is threatened from within and without. Lobstermen, though still small boat operators, are better at harvesting today than they were years ago. Demand is higher. Price competition is fiercer. A marketing message that emphasizes the value of locally harvested seafood may be the edge that’s needed to preserve and strengthen the industry. Nevertheless, more may be required.

Because of declining lobster stocks in southern New England, the American Lobster Technical Committee (TC) of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) recommend a five-year moratorium on lobstering south of Cape Cod. If enacted, the moratorium would put Vineyard lobstermen out of business until 2016.

Distinguishing their product from the competition’s will help Island lobstermen, but the proposed moratorium could defeat even these well-intentioned efforts.

As Mr. Cabot explains, the moratorium is supported, in the minds of the regulators, by studies, “The reasons for the TC’s moratorium recommendation are cited in a 24-page report ( showing that the lobster harvest in southern New England peaked in 1997, reached an all-time low in 2003, and remained low through 2007. Studies of lobster larvae and infant lobsters in the last two years show low abundance of the species here (less than 25 percent of levels in the 1984-2003 period), at the same time that there has been record high abundance in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank. Lobster stocks in Massachusetts Bay are also low, but not as low as south of Cape Cod.”

But, as Menemsha’s Wayne Iacono says, in reaction to these apparently scientific conclusions, “The scientists say their divers are not seeing two-inch lobsters, but we are finding plenty of them in our traps.”

Beyond marketing initiatives, beyond the protection of fishing grounds such as Horseshoe Shoal, beyond preserving waterfronts such as Menemsha’s for the commercial use of fishermen, there is a need for research-supported alternatives to the current regulatory impulses. Fishermen need data too. It is clear that putting even a small slice of the commercial fishing and lobstering industry out of business, even for a limited period, raises the grave likelihood that reconstituting the small-operator industry post-moratorium is nothing one should count on. A better likelihood is that when fishing is once again allowed, larger, better capitalized, more technologically efficient harvesters will enter the game, replacing the small operator in his small boat with a crew of one or none. Then, the question will be, how to protect the rebuilt species from the newfangled, more efficient fishermen.

It’s a recipe for destroying a small-scale industry and its practitioners, not for regulating it.

Participants in the small-vessel commercial fishing business need some scientific basis for a management plan that will keep them in business and keep the species they harvest healthy. Fishermen have often come late to the game, without the data necessary to counter the information that the regulators mistakenly believe tells the entire story. Fishermen need to move more quickly and arm themselves with carefully developed data and a protective plan, to counter the blunt force trauma the regulators appear ready to inflict.