Barbara Stevenson is a member of the New England Fishery Management Council Barbara Stevenson and the owner of several fishing vessels.


We've talked to a lot of fishermen up and down the New England Coast and a lot of the small-boat fishermen complain that they are unable to go far off shore, unlike some of the bigger boats, and that's really hurt their ability to make a living. They're really biting the bullet and they're really hoping that the cod stocks would return and that the closed areas would open up. Would you care to comment on the plight on the small-boat fishermen?

Gulf of Maine cod are concentrated inshore. They're not the traditional grounds of the small-boat vessels and it puts a lot of strain on their resources to fish in places they haven't fished in, or further offshore than they normally can fish in. Many of their boats may not be able to fish in those offshore waters.

Everyone talks about the collapse of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic. How did we get here?

It's difficult to say how we got here. Of course, there was a lot of foreign fishing here when the haddock resource was so high in the '70s. And then there was a mood of euphoria when the Magnuson Act passed and a lot of building, because there was this perception that the domestic fleet could never catch the quantities that the foreign fleets caught. But something else must have been happening because there was a cod crisis in Norway, a cod crisis in Iceland, a cod crisis in Canada, and you had a cod crisis here. So that indicates that it's not just something that happened here.

Actually, here we managed to stop the crisis before it got as bad as it got in some other areas. And in Georges, the stock is rebounding. We've had some closed areas there for years, and we're a little bit concerned about recruitment. There haven't been enough babies and the babies might not have grown up the way they should, but why that is, whether it's a recruitment or we haven't hit the right year yet, we don't know. So we're eagerly awaiting that event.

In the Gulf of Maine, unfortunately, when we put the original regulations in, the stock was healthy. And to give all the inshore vessels a break, we set up different, less conservative targets than we did on Georges. And because of the regulations which also allowed small boats, even if they didn't fish before, and didn't constrain the smaller boat, a lot of vessels went into the fishery.

So the combination of not setting as strict a goal because the stock was healthy and that smaller boats could get in put too much pressure on that fishery then. And we have to solve that problem but it's a very difficult problem to solve.

Did it happen that way for Georges Bank, as well as for the near-shore fisheries?

I was describing what happened in the entire Atlantic. On Georges is where we stopped soon enough because we put the closed areas in, we put these drastic reductions in the days a vessel could fish in addition to the 8 to 9000 square miles that are closed in Georges. So we gave that stock protection. The individual fish are growing like Gangbusters out there.

There haven't been many babies in the Gulf of Maine. For some reason, we have plenty of healthy adults. So it's not that we don't have plenty of adults. Something else is going on. There's some very hopeful signs from what are 2-inch codfish right now. But we know enough to know that that's a good sign, but you don't rejoice until they get to 10-12 inches.

Scientists are saying that recruitment is still a problem, and that research indicates that there's been some impact on bottom habitat - on the ocean's floor, that the fish's hiding place is being knocked down by roller gear and such.

Different gears have different impacts, and there are good and bad things for every kind of gear. It's a much more complex question than, "Is this gear good or is this gear bad?" In different situations every gear is either good or bad. There have been some very interesting movies made on scallop gear and bottom impacts. Actually, many people are quite amazed because the movies they've made inside the closure area and outside the closed areas look essentially the same, which would indicate that on the bottom there is virtually no impact.

How about in the coral?

We have deep cold-water beds of coral in the Gulf of Maine. Any kind of gear can knock the coral off, from recreational hooks to otter trawls. Otter trawls don't tend to go in that area because damage to their gear is too bad, but there are certain areas where you have to look at all the gear. For instance, what do lobster traps do when they're hauled through coral? I don't know, but you should look at the whole broad range.

You mention rockhoppers. I've heard that rockhoppers have allowed bottom trawl fishing in areas that previously were not accessible, due to damage to the gear. But since the invention of rockhoppers, now there's no place left for the fish to hide.

Rockhoppers do hop, so you have less interaction with the bottom, which in theory it might mean that you could fish in places you couldn't fish before. To my knowledge that hasn't happened with our fleet, but we never fished on hard bottom. The New Bedford fleet was traditionally a hard bottom fleet. The difference is that they used to take 15 bellies (which is the bottom part of the net) because they tear them out. They don't do that anymore.

Now, that just means that the crew is more relaxed. It doesn't mean that they're fishing in other areas. You could take the example that they now they don't have to put 15 bellies in the net to indicate that obviously they have less interaction with the bottom then they did before.

Sometimes scientists have said that their research results and their advice have not been addressed by the Fisheries Council. Would you care to comment?

When you're looking at the advice on the status of the stocks, my take is that they can very easily tell you if things are improving or if they're going the other way. That's well in their skill range. But to be able to tell you the number is between 782 metric tons and 827 metric tons, they don't have that skill level. And we've forced that process into trying to make that argument between 700-something and 800-something.

When the scientists give the council advice, the council members know that there's a wide range of probabilities. If they say it's 782, they might say there's a 90% probability that it's somewhere between 325 and 1275; yes it's probably somewhere in there. But the council then has to translate that into what other things they've heard. What other things are going on? And then translate that into well, how quick is the recovery and what are the impact to these different groups.

Then last year we had a phenomenon here with cold water from the Labrador current, which maybe is why there wasn't a lot of codfish, I don't know. But you have other phenomena which are unique and not protected. So this is not a 1 + 1 = 2, this is a 1 + 1 might equal a half or five. And trying to come to the right conclusion is very difficult.

Some of these scientists have said that marine fisheries are a national resource, at least within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. And since it is a public asset or resource, a council that presides over the management of the resource should represent the stakeholders - everyone in the nation - and not be dominated by any one group.

But the problem is that the management has been dominated by the industry. And as is the nature of any business, the council manages this public resource in terms of short-term gain over long-term gains, which as a result, has hurt the fishing industry. Do you believe that?

I believe that fishermen have a longer-term view than the scientists have. Council members are appointed for the maximum benefit of the nation, though it's not as important as it used to be. That's the important thing. The important thing is to manage this resource for the maximum benefit of the nation.

Now, if the maximum benefit to the nation is to provide employment for a large group of people who don't have another alternative, and that means that the cod stocks or whatever stocks are not as healthy as someone might want, then that's a rational decision for the council to make because its view is for the most benefit of the nation.

We've had several problems recently with people who are too bent on the science and the science of numbers and this stock assessment. One of their biggest arguments in the Gulf of Maine is that fishermen wanted to close spawning areas. And the scientists were saying about spawning area closures, it doesn't matter when the fish are caught.

Well, we finally get confirmation from Canada that it does matter because they have this ritual and if the ritual is disturbed they don't spawn. So we spent 5 years arguing with the scientists that we wanted to close spawning areas and the scientists saying that doesn't matter and lo and behold, we ended up being right.

Scientists are people who observe things. Well, what does a fisherman do every day? Now, I'm not saying people don't look at their bottom line and whether they're going to go out of business or not, but they also think about if they're going to be in business in 5 years.

How does it feel, as a council member and owner of a successful business, to have everyone breathing down your neck and blaming the fishing industry or the management councils for the problems that we're having?

I feel very beleaguered, and I'm very glad that when I come home the fishermen here, whether I voted the way they wanted to or not, they give me the space that I need. They talk to me, give me information, and don't always blame me when the council does something they don't want.

I get very frustrated with the conservation industry, whose jobs depend on things looking bleak and dire. Some of them are, but most of them aren't very constructive in dealing with the issues.

NMFS is very difficult sometimes to work with because they like to dot i's and cross t's and some of us like to look at the broader picture. The most frustrating thing is when different sectors of the industry are fighting amongst themselves and that's what probably causes me the most grief.

What kind of management practices would you like to see in place today to keep stocks healthy? What do you think the solution is?

I believe that we should recognize our limits. And so I believe in the concept of husbanding rather than managing. Mother Nature will do what Mother Nature is going to do, but we can do a lot to be sure that we get the maximum benefit out of whatever we happen to have.

I think that there's been much too much belief that the science can tell us things that it can't tell us. And we need to step back, do what we can do and aid the science in learning. But this is science; it's not facts. We're not talking about the speed of a train or something that's easily measurable and you can do the calculations. It's very difficult. And the amount that we don't know is just staggering.

So in that sense, I think we should all take a step back and take a broader view and not believe we can solve every problem every year. We need to just work on whatever problems that we can deal with.

I do not believe in ITQ's. ITQ's would make me rich, but it would be devastating to Danise, Maine, where there are very little options. Everywhere in the world that they've been put in, they concentrate the fishery into the centers, which would mean Portland would do better than Stonington and Gloucester might do better than Portland. But Danise, Maine needs a fishing industry more than Portland does.

We've heard too many times this common phrase: Too many boats chasing after too few fish. Would you agree?

It's in your perspective. And this may sound weird coming from a conservative republican, but there's a lot to be said for providing employment opportunities, and there are fisheries - not necessarily here - that are managed with the sole goal of maintaining those employment opportunities. If that's your goal, then there is no such thing as too many vessels. There might be too few fish, but that's a separate issue.

On the larger scale, when you're talking about giant factory trawlers, I don't think there's a place for them on the East Coast. Maybe in other parts of the worlds, but not here. We don't have any giant factory trawlers here now.

A lot of people have said, "We don't understand. The optimum size boat for the Gulf of Maine is 54 feet, but they're a lot larger than that. And we don't understand this." Well, did you consider that the fisherman spends most of his life there, and he might actually want a bunk to himself, might actually want a bathroom that has hot water?" And when you add all of these things the length of the boat has to be larger. And the people say, "No, that doesn't fit into our calculations." Well, it certainly fits into their offices.

In terms of fisheries management, is it your sense that there have been mistakes made in the past? How could they have been avoided and how can we avoid them in the future?

Yes, we make mistakes every day, but everybody else makes mistakes, too. The one thing that bothers me is when you hear scientists who say 'Well, let's try this; this'll be a great experiment." And they're talking about my life. That disturbs me greatly. But to think you can do fisheries management without making mistakes is just wrong. You have to try to do the best you can not to make mistakes and to rectify them as soon as you realize they are mistakes.

For instance, in the overriding amendment that put in the days at sea and all of the constraints that were under the groundfish plan, they originally excluded a lot of categories because they didn't think they were important. Well they quickly found out they were and had to put in regulations.

And then because of one perceived problem, they changed part of the regulations, not realizing the impact, which had to do with the fleet category - the people who don't have individual days. And the consequences of that change, which nobody thought about then are phenomenal and a part of the capacity problem we're having now.

You can't think of everything. You have to try to think and you need to be able to have the time to think before you put in changes. That's part of the problem with the current SFA, is that it doesn't allow anybody time to think about anything. And you need to think about not only these consequences but what those consequences are going to cost and what those consequences are going to cost. At least that far. And now, we barely get to think about the first.

When the stocks do rebuild themselves, what will be the most important thing to do differently so that we don't get into the same dire straits that we are in now?

The offshore fleet in general, although the areas that are closed are wrong - those specific areas were closed because they were already down on paper and we needed to do something quickly, other than changing the boundaries of those areas, most of the offshore fleet does not want to see them reopen because they believe that's the protection that they need.

It's not a one-thing situation. There are a broad number of things. I think we've learned a lot form the cod crisis, for instance. Just because in a certain area you still catch a phenomenal amount of fish doesn't mean the stock is healthy. So we need to look at the broader picture. So we need to do minor corrections earlier. That would probably be my main point.

Is there anything that you care to add?

There are benefits to the sacrifice if you can persevere. I keep track of dollars per hour because we fish for money. And in the last two years, because of the recovery of the stocks in Georges, our dollars per hour has phenomenally increased, which is what you want to see out of management. That's what you want from an industry point of view. But I know this is a very, very difficult time for the boats in the harbor; a very difficult time.