John on Press Herald Post

Marine fisheries are a multi-billion dollar industry.  The New England Fishery Management Council serves, in effect, as the board of trustees for the production line and operations of this industry.

Individually, Council appointees are responsible citizens with civic pride in the fishing industry and desire to help the community thrive, or employees of the marine resource agencies of five states.  Without exception, these people serve with the best of intentions.  Collectively, however, the group would be discouraged from any corporate board room , as rank amateurs.

Amateurism was in full display when the Fishery Management Council met this week in Portland.

The problems for groundfish go back decades.  Too many boats were built to catch groundfish in the 1980, before we fully understood the limits on a sustainably managed fishery.   Managers institutionalized the problem in 1995 by qualifying four-times too many of these vessels for permits to pursue groundfish in a targeted fishery.  Meanwhile, from 1990 to 2003, managers consistently ignored or fudged scientific recommendations to curb overfishing, driving these stocks into chronic depletion.

Then, in 2003, a federal court ruling compelled managers to rebuild these stocks to scientifically derived standards within the law, by 2014.  You’ve never seen such foot-dragging.

The final stage of this court-ordered remedial action, the year-five reassessment of stock status and updating, is due for May 2009.  The Fishery Management Council this week missed a critical deadline in that process.  They stepped away from their collective responsibility under the law, because difficult decisions were outside the comfort zone of too many council members.  Again.

Real businessmen take decisive action when faced with hard choices.  In the 1990s, and at innumerable junctures since then, real business mangers would have recognized that far too many boats were chasing too few fish.  They would have placed a premium on maximizing the available opportunity growing the resource as quickly as possible.

Skillful planners would have acknowledged the disparity in capital investment and have created a master-plan to guide vessel owners on whether to invest or disinvest – a road-map for an orderly economic progression to a more desirable capital structure (we do this routinely in municipal planning).  They would have made allowances for economic diversity and communities.

The twenty-year history of groundfish management offers a bitter example.  A sustainably managed groundfish resource has potential value many time greater than its current condition.   Over the period the resource was allowed to descend into chronic depletion.  Meanwhile the industry has been saddled with an erratic, overly complex, and constantly changing management regime.  The result has been ecological and business instability