Should the government interfere with New England’s fishing fleet?

It’s an election year, in case you’ve been in the hold of a boat for nine months.  One of the debates I hear over and over again is whether no government or very little government is better. Before you say “no government“, and reapply the tape to your Ron Paul poster, let’s remember how government subsidies helped to build the fishing industry in New England, and let’s talk about how the government is now being asked to step in again to dismantle part of the fishing fleet.

New England lawmakers are said to be mulling some emergency relief for the embattled New England groundfish fleet. Ask any northeastern fisherman and they’ll shake their head and tell you that things are not right. And it boils down to this simple fact: there aren’t enough fish for the number of boats out there. This sucks. Big time.

The reason for this is complex (surprise, surprise) and partly a mystery. For starters, the ocean ecosystem off the northeast may be shifting due to nearly half a millennium of fishing, climate change and Cod knows what other global and local forces.  But this isn’t the only problem facing the fleet.

After World War II, the United States was falling behind in the fishing game and foreign vessels were catching more fish offshore than domestic fishermen. The government responded, starting in the 1950s, with subsidies to the fishing industry. In 1976 the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act established the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, in large part to give domestic fishermen preferential access to the nation’s rich fishery resource.  These subsidy programs (including financing for boat-building, tax-less gas, and new markets), plus a bat-sh#@-crazy optimism on the inexhaustible supply of fish out there resulted in just enough boats for the good times, but way too many boats for today.

Now, since the government helped to create this “overcapacity”, it can help undo it, right? This is an area of hot debate. As I argued in my post from last week, whether we should have a permit or a boat buy-back system, and how we should design said buy-back program, would depend entirely on the vision we have  for the future of New England fisheries.  If the government or other fishermen buy up permits from fishermen who want to get out of the fishery, do the fish those permits would have caught still get caught, or are they put aside?  Would this result in the well-heeled corporate fishing conglomerates coming out as winners at the expense of the small-scale fisherman?  Would the program actually help with overcapitalization, or exacerbate existing problems?  Would such a program result in a long-term benefit to the ecosystem? What about the socio-economic landscape?

As government and the public mull the value of a buy-back program in New England, these questions need to be answered. The trade-offs we face need to be well understood before the government “helps” again, and it would be a lot easier to find the “right” balance of ecological, economic and social benefits if we had a common vision in mind.

OK, now you can fix your Ron Paul poster. And once you’re done with that, focus hard on Capitol Hill. The prospects of a New England buyback gaining momentum are real. The likelihood of other regions positioning themselves to receive funds as part of any package? Also very real. The danger that a rushed injection of federal dollars will be a missed opportunity to, in Mike Conathan’s words, “hit the reset button” — in New England and elsewhere? Depressingly real. If that mistake is to be avoided, the time for action is now.

448 thoughts on “Should the government interfere with New England’s fishing fleet?

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