Taking the Lead on Climate

26 Oct 2021

By Jeff Pike

Printed in the November 2021 edition of Commercial Fisheries News. Reprinted by permission.

The red flag has gone up! It may be too late to stop the glaciers from melting and sea levels from rising, but it’s not too late for all of us to make a difference.

Fishery managers at every level must integrate climate change as part of their decision-making process. They need to consider how their actions can reduce emissions, greenhouse gases, and other contributors as they continue to manage and monitor our fisheries. There are no silver bullets. As with most systemic change, success will depend on a growing number of small steps that deliver measurable results in modest increments. We must all make the changes we can now if we are to slow and push back on climate change.

So far, fishery managers have focused on adapting to the impacts of climate change and have not explored opportunities for reducing the causes. For example, the Northeast Regional Coordinating Council is sponsoring an East Coast Climate Change Scenario planning session to consider how fishery management can adapt to climate change.

There are many important challenges to confront, but this approach does not go far enough. Although opportunities may be limited, fishery managers do have the power to reduce the causes of climate change, primarily when it comes to the use of fossil fuels. The climate crisis demands fishery managers seize such opportunities.

While fishery management council authority is limited under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, councils can and should make a difference. They may not be able to order fishing vessels back to sail technology (and we would not want them to), but they have the authority and moral mandate to adopt changes that will reduce emissions when there are clear opportunities. Here’s one example of how it can be done.

Over the last few years, members of the limited access sea scallop fleet have requested the New England Fishery Management Council develop a voluntary leasing program that would allow one vessel to fish up to two vessel allocations, through the leasing of days at sea and access area trips. The current system of one boat, one permit, one allocation has led to extreme excess fishing capacity, resulting in a significant waste of resources, including fuel.

The leasing concept would create a voluntary program to give vessel owners much needed flexibility to manage their vessels through the mounting concerns over reduced allowable catches and the shrinking of fishing grounds to accommodate offshore wind development. Owners of multiple vessels could lease to themselves and eliminate one vessel. Simply put, such a program would reduce the excess fishing capacity in the fleet.

A leasing program modeled after one proposed by the Scallopers Campaign is projected to reduce fuel consumption by more than 1 million gallons of fuel each year, resulting in 11,548 fewer metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, according to a new assessment on leasing recently conducted by Northern Economics, Inc. In other words, in just one fishery in one region, fishery managers can reduce emissions by nearly 12,000 metric tons every year. Imagine the possibilities if this thinking extended across all fisheries.

This is a great example of smart policy delivering climate benefits, since the lion’s share of this reduction comes from not burning fuel to maintain excess fishing vessels when they are not fishing. A typical full time scallop vessels spends about 80 days at sea fishing, with the remaining 245 days tied to the dock.

A leasing program is not going to solve climate change. But it will make a modest difference at no cost to fishermen, fishing communities, or taxpayers. It will also send a powerful message that fishery managers can and will play a proactive role in reducing climate effects. Through the approval of a voluntary leasing program, the New England Council can demonstrate that it is possible for all councils to contribute to meeting our nation’s goal to dramatically reduce emissions.

Jeff Pike got his start as a commercial fisherman in Chatham and served as chief of staff of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. For the past 25 years he has been in private practice representing commercial fishermen from Maine to Alaska.