BOSTON -- The law that governs the nation's fisheries was passed 36 years ago to oust foreign boats working in U.S. waters. Today, New England fishermen wonder if it will soon oust them.
Because of certain controversial mandates in the law, the fishermen face colossal cuts in how much they're allowed to catch in 2013. Lawmakers are pushing a $100 million aid package just to sustain the fleet.
The law has become "an impediment to keeping the fishing industry alive," said Scituate fisherman Frank Mirachi
But Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group said the law isn't to blame for fish populations that have dwindled over decades, that's exactly what it can fix. "The law is pointed in the right direction," he said.
Now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the fisheries law was passed in 1976. It created a 200-mile U.S.-controlled zone off the coasts, from which foreign boats were expelled by the late 1980s.
But environmentalists soon worried the efficient American fleet was now the one overfishing. So in 1996, various conservation measures were enacted.
One of those mandates was a 10-year timeline for rebuilding a depleted fish species. That window is nearing its end for fish such as cod in the Gulf of Maine, but the stock is nowhere near replenished and fishermen face massive catch reductions in an attempt to meet the deadline.
Environmentalists say that fish recovery needs such a deadline or it will never happen. But there's little science behind a 10-year period, and even longtime fishery watchers struggle to recall where the number came from.
An early reference is found in a 1992 federal consent decree issued after a lawsuit to force regulators to prevent overfishing. The number arose from consultation with population scientists, recalled Peter Shelley, a Conservation Law Foundation attorney involved in the lawsuit.
"It was not thin air, slightly more than back of the envelope, but not the product of extensive scientific debate," Shelley said.
Critics include U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who's railed against "that 10-year stupidity" and says the unscientific, one-size-fits-all requirement would hurt fishermen the same way that forcing a homeowner to pay off a 30-year mortgage in a decade would.
The steep cuts coming in 2013 are also tied to another of the law's mandates, a 2007 change that requires an immediate end to overfishing. That means that the more gradual cuts that regulators used to put in place aren't possible anymore.
Drew Minkiewicz, a former U.S. Senate staffer who worked on the 2007 fishery law reauthorization, recalled the push to "immediately" end overfishing came amid concerns regulators were forever delaying needed cuts.
The change requires, and enforces, precisely determined catch limits during a fish's rebuilding period. But scientific projections of the health of some stocks have since proven way off, and painful adjustments were needed to keep the fish in its rebuilding track.
For instance, scientists believed in 2008 that Gulf of Maine cod stocks were robust. Today, cod's recovery is seen as so weak that the huge cut became unavoidable.
"There was a lot more confidence in the science than there should have been, that is fair to say," Minkiewicz said.
Among the estimated cuts next year: 72 percent to Gulf of Maine cod, 70 percent to Georges Bank cod and 51 percent to Georges Bank yellowtail flounder.
But several species in line for the biggest cuts have actually grown since 2007, fisheries scientist Steve Cadrin noted. The Gulf of Maine cod, for instance, has ticked up from about 10,800 metric tons worth of spawning age fish in 2007 to 11,900 metric tons in 2010.
He also finds absurdity in regulations designed to save the industry that could actually enact industry-killing cuts.
"You've now come full circle, and it's not making sense anymore," said Cadrin, a University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth researcher.
But Baker said the law is rightly aiming to rebuild a robust groundfish fishery instead of keeping the industry limping along.
He said modest short-term growth in some fish masks long-term decline. Yes, Gulf of Maine cod is slowly growing, he said, but it's barely over half of the 1990 estimate of about 23,000 metric tons.
With other parts of the fishing industry prospering, such as New Bedford's $300 million scallop fleet, he said, there should be ways to help those who catch groundfish, which are bottom-dwelling fish such as cod and flounder.
"It seems like there's enough revenue in the fishery to go around," Baker said.
The dispute over the cuts comes amid anecdotal reports that fishing is off this year. Mirachi, who's been fishing for 50 years, said catches seem lower on some species, such as cod, but better on others because warmer water seemed to draw a different mix of fish. He, and scientists, can only guess whether it is an anomaly, he said.
In the meantime, he said, there's got to be way to temper both the optimistic and dismal projections about fish health and recovery, so the law doesn't dictate such massive swings in the catch as the ocean decides what it's going to do.
"We as an industry could be happier with lower highs," Mirachi said. "But we can't live with the depths of the lows."