There’s nothing new about tension between New England’s fishermen and the scientists and regulators who oversee their industry. But the situation has reached fever pitch in the past two years, in large part due to a federally mandated deadline to end overfishing and the introduction of a new management scheme, known as catch shares, in which a total catch limit is set and the catch is divvied up among eligible fishermen.

Since the introduction of catch shares management for the New England groundfishery (cod, haddock, flounder, and several other species) in 2010, the fleet has shrunk to 400 boats. How much of that reduction is due to catch shares and how much is a continuation of a long-term contraction is a matter for debate. Either way, the end result is the same — a lot of former fishermen in distress.

On top of that, the 2011 assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod stock held a nasty surprise – a much slower-than-expected increase in the population which put the stock status back in the “overfished” column. In years past, that would have been problematic but managers would have had some leeway to phase in catch reductions. This year, though, every fishery in the nation is facing a federally mandated deadline to end overfishing. That means cod fishermen are facing fairly draconian cuts in catch limits in the next few years. 

As a result, the Commerce Department issued a disaster declaration that will at least allow some relief funds to flow to affected fishermen. But that’s far from a long-term solution for New England’s storied fishing industry.

And then there’s climate change, with its warming waters and ocean acidification threatening to make iconic New England species like cod, lobster, and oysters a whole lot rarer — even without help from fishing.

John Bullard stepped into the middle of this charged situation when he took over as northeast regional administrator of NOAA’s Fisheries Service in August of this year. It’s the latest step in a career largely dedicated to ocean science. He was mayor of New Bedford from 1986 until 1992. He then went to Washington to lead NOAA’s first Office of Sustainable Development under President Bill Clinton. He was a member of the Massachusetts Ocean Advisory Panel that created Massachusetts’ first-of-its-kind Ocean Plan, and he led the Sea Education Association until he took up his new post this past summer.

Dr. Bill Karp is also part of a new guard moving in to help find a way to address New England’s fishing woes. He was named the new Science and Research Director of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center this past summer.

When John Bullard took office, he was quoted as saying "science is the foundation of everything." Indeed, the federal legislation that mandates fisheries management requires that regulations be based on the “best available science.” But defining “best available science” can be tricky. Does it mean annual stock assessments? Or more detailed assessments every few years? Should assessment techniques be as up-to-date as possible? Or held the same to ensure comparability from year to year? And what about social science?

The challenges facing New England’s fisheries are clearly enormous — far too big to encapsulate in half an hour. But rest assured, this is not the last time it will come up.