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Sustainable Seafood

Investing in Sustainable Fishing: A New Lease on Life for New England Communities


America was built on Cod.

When Americans today think of the first Thanksgiving feast, we often lean on our childhood history lesson version of events; the brave settlers celebrating with their new neighbors the survival of those first harsh months in a new world. Long tables of turkey and maize are etched in our minds, symbolizing a land of plenty and a unifying, if short-lived, bond with the newcomer’s native benefactors.

It is a foundational moment in the mythology that helped carve out a new country. But it was not as much the turkey and maize, but the even more bountiful harvest from the North Atlantic, cod especially, that underpins the foundation of the new American continent. Cod built colonial America, at least in New England.

It is said that cod was so abundant in those times that you could walk across the ocean on their backs.

Those days are long gone. The North Atlantic cod, once fabled as inexhaustible, is all but a faded memory of the past. What then happens to the towns and villages up and down the Atlantic seaboard that once thrived on what is now a tapped-out resource?

The communities that cod built

Many fear that a way of life for small-boat Atlantic fisherman is gone or nearly so; a fear endemic in many American communities like Cape Cod, where fishing has been the common organizing thread for centuries.

Fishing communities represent a resilient and traditional way of life. The evolving realities of growing competition for increasingly stressed resources challenges the survival of this resilinece. The fishing industry, including wild and farmed, represents a quickly changing, often controversial, and in most instances economically and emotionally disruptive future for the communities that cod built.

Resilience: A delicate balance of boom and bust

Periods of want and plenty were common in the North Atlantic. Historical research suggests that for at least 100 years the small fishing communities built up around groundfish (cod, flounder, halibut and sole) experienced cycles of “boom and bust.” Periods of abundance were interspersed about every 30 years with severe decline, even failure, of local cod fisheries.

Fishing grounds were exploited, but mostly inshore and limited by the available technology of the day, maintaining an overall sustainable balance. The cod always came back, and the cycle helped forge an idiosyncratic cultural resilience to cope and adapt.

Then came industrial, global fishing. Fishing schooners gave way to large, deep-water trawlers. By the mid-2oth century ships became ocean-going fish factories, able to scrape up cod (as well as tons of wasted bycatch) and process the catch while still at sea.

Even a 200-mile exclusion zone could not keep the decimation of the North Atlantic cod at bay. The Cod Wars between Iceland and Great Britain, the changing demographics of Newfoundland outport communities, increased competition between extraction methods, and friction with international players brought cod fishing to environmental, social and economic crisis.

The tentative balance maintained between fishing communities and the cod that supported them was broken.

Managing fisheries, maintaining communities

The inability to sustainably manage or assess the cod fishery throughout the North Atlantic not only decimated the fish -- once crowding the seas from North America to Northern Europe -- but also tore communities apart.

Despite nearly a century of warning signs that cod fisheries could not long withstand the onslaught of industrial fishing, the collapse in 1992 of the once great cod fishing grounds off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland caught Canadian communities, government and resource managers off-gaurd. Left without a means of supporting their families, as many as 30,000 small boat fisherman were left angry, bitter and without jobs.

The writing was on the wall for New England fisherman. Many who spent their lives on the sea felt their way of life going the way of the cod -- into commercial extinction.

Small-boat fisherman up and down the Atlantic coast grew ever more skeptical of quotas set by scientific fishery assessments. A pervading sense of uncertainty of whether the Cod would ever recover in New England, even if boat captains scrupulously maintain the quotas handed down, tested the resilience and optimism of even the hardiest of fisherman.

“The humans have been brought under control, but it’s still haywire,” Frank Mirachi, a Scituate, Massachusetts fisherman said in a 2013 Boston Globe article  “I can’t get to a point of stability, because the system delivers endless chaos.”

Community development - fisherman helping fisherman

As fisheries management shifted toward Catch Shares or Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ), sometimes referred to as "cap and trade for fish," small-boat fisherman in Cape Cod increasingly saw access to their own traditional fishing grounds snapped up by large global interests with the capital resources to trawl the seas with their floating fish factories, leaving little left over for anyone else.

But what the small fishing communities of New England lacked in sheer economic power was compensated by an economic force built on a bond community trust, of tradition and a determination to maintain a way of life -- independent, small boat fishing.

In 2005 a partnership, commercial fisherman in Cape Cod formed the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust. Through grants and low-cost loans, the trust can purchase Catch Share quotas and lease the Shares to local fisherman at half-market rates.

The trust manages the mechanics of leasing and transparency in pricing quotas through a key partnership with the Cape Cod Community Development Partnership.

A source I spoke with familiar with the trust emphasized the community-based approach and criteria required for access to the low-cost Catch Share quotas:

  • The applicant must be a resident of Cape Cod

  • An owner-operator of their boat

  • Employ only local crew

For many, this approach has helped bring back a sense of optimism to the future of fishing off Cape Cod, but some still have reservations as to whether the trust can ever fully counterbalance the new reality of fishing in Cape Cod.

Despite an optimistic assessment for Gulf of Maine Cod in 2008, fisherman aren't seeing it in their nets. Quotas for cod haven't been filled in the region for a "number of years" says a source, and the optimism for cod professed in 2008 turned on its heels when the 2013 season was declared a "disaster."

What cod is left is pursued from large trawlers, based in bigger New England ports like Gloucester and New Bedford, able to venture further offshore -- though even then the cod is harder and harder to find.

But even if the halcyon days of cod fishing are done, access to community-driven solutions are vital to maintain a way of life through sustainable fishing. The small-boat, inshore fisherman of Cape Cod that once depended on groundfish began pursuing more plentiful species like starfish, moonfish, scallops and sea clams years ago.

The trust still holds Quotas for cod in order to leverage the power of local fisherman for the hopeful return of the cod, but most of the activity for leasing Quota Shares is for scallops and sea clams.

The sea clam is often considered the "poster child" for ITQ mismanagement. Sea clam was the first species in the U.S. to fall under an ICQ quota system in the late 90's, soon disappearing after large, vertically integrated commercial interests bought up the entire quota. What had been a traditional Cape Cod fishery was gone.

Fortunately, sea clams have now recovered, and the trust helps insure access to the sea clam fishery for local fisherman with a vested interest in its sustainable management.

A principal tenet of Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, beyond active on-the-ground support for Cape Cod fisherman, is to serve as a model for managing the nexus between evolving sustainable resource management and the survival of traditional fishing communities.

Market-based incentives and impact investing for sustainable fisheries

A March 2014 report from Oceana and RARE, entitled Sustainable Fisheries - Financing Strategies, explores how best to invest resources to sustain fisheries and fishing communities. Typically, the report states, fishery management and conservation has revolved around political advocacy, community engagement and media campaigns targeting “charismatic” species (North Atlantic cod, for instance) and threatened habitats.

Investment funds like the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, the growing “traceable fish” movement and community engagement like the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wives Association are examples of market-based incentives increasingly employed, in one form or another, around the globe.

While each of these methods are effective if properly managed in the right circumstances, the report suggests these initiatives are further enhanced with impact investing to attract, as stated in the report's executive summary “private, return-seeking capital to support sustainable fisheries management.”

The report outlines three principal components of sustainable fisheries management that drive such investment:

  • Commercial

  • Regulatory

  • Scientific

By unifying these three components, private investment can manage the complexities of fisheries restoration, price and supply chain volatility, and inadequate regulatory oversight.

The report identifies microfinance and SME (small to medium enterprise route-to-market), public/private partnerships and “Fisheries Impact” (providing investments directly for sustainable interventions) as three robust and effective investment models for sustainable fisheries management.

In the end, even impact or triple-bottom-line investing must be pragmatic. Effective vehicles such as those described here offer valuable return on investment while managing the inherent risk that has always been a part of fishing. Programs like the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust builds social cohesion and access to capital in communities beleaguered by endless quotas, declining fish populations and encroaching commercial interests.

In general, innovative strategies employed globally, yet addressing specific local needs, can accelerate the the impact of sustainable fisheries management.

Rooted in tradition, the story continues

The story of cod and small-boat fishing in America continues to evolve. But, until relatively recently, it has always been a story of resilience and abundance, of men and women taking to the sea and feeding a new world.

It is a romantic vision of the fiercely independent spirit that our mythology tells us built a nation. But too often that tradition of resilience and independence is overrun with globalization, industrialization, mismanagement and collapse -- of fisheries and fishing communities.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Through local community development, competent regulation and private impact investment, a new spirit of independence can emerge, built not on scraping the seas to desolation, but on flourishing communities put back in balance with the thriving fisheries the define them.

If we invest wisely, Cape Cod will always be a place to fish.

Image credit: "Rowing Home" by Winslow Homer, 1890

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman