The provisions within the House and Senate state budget documents now working their way through conference committee on Beacon Hill may not solve all — or even most — of the problems confronting New England’s fishermen this year.
But they may deliver just what the doctor ordered to resolve the perpetual core disputes between fishermen and their federal overseers when it comes to carrying out credible, scientific stock assessments on which to base NOAA’s catch limits and other policy needs. Now, it’s up to either a federal judge, our federal lawmakers or perhaps both to confirm that the patient — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration itself — is failing badly and needs the outside help it’s thus far refused to allow on board.
The budget provisions, thankfully included and pushed by state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, most notably call for funding for an effort to identify and sequence the genetic code of groundfish such as cod — and an experimental program in the use of sonar technology to provide real-time supplemental data on the size and location of fish stocks off our shores.
Both of those should be welcomed, of course, by NOAA officials. But the truth is, the agency has shown no interest whatsoever in changing the way it carries out the assessments — with outdated and sometimes embarrassingly ineffective trawl surveys, and with computer models that project an overall biomass based on what NOAA’s researchers do or do not catch. And all of those trawl surveys are still carried out without any input from rank-and-file fishermen, who know where the fish are and recognize cyclical changes that can produce what studies showed to be a temporary downtick in the cod population leading to the current limits threatening the industry.