Letters: Making the right call for fish, fishermen and our future

Hundreds of years ago, Massachusetts' first colonists came to these shores by ship and sail. Chasing then-plentiful fish stocks from across the Atlantic, these immigrants imagined their "City upon a Hill" not from summit's height but atop crested wave.

My own immigrant father was a trawl fisherman, back when cod were still so abundant that people said you could walk across the sea on their backs. Fishing, hard work then and now, supported a family of eight. Fishing cod, haddock, and other species put food on our table and money in the bank. Fishing helped me become the first in my family to go to college.

But I was reminded recently that fish can only sustain a person, a family, and whole communities if we are good stewards. That means never trading our children's futures for short-term gain today.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 200, a bill that threatens the future of U.S. ocean fish, fishermen, and coastal communities. If it becomes law, annual catch limits would no longer be required for scores of species, and the needed rebuilding of depleted fish populations could be delayed indefinitely.

Our congressman, U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., offered amendments to H.R. 200 that would help our local fishermen. But he was right to recognize that those could not fix the bill's fundamental flaws, and thankfully voted against this ill-advised legislation.

You don't have to look too far back to understand why the nation's fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, matters. In the early 1990s, cod, other iconic New England stocks, and fish populations across the country were crashing, in large part because during the boom years of my father, our fisheries weren't well managed.

In the wake of this crisis, Congress amended the Magnuson-Stevens Act, in 1996 and again in 2006, to improve how we manage our precious fishery resources. The changes required managers to set annual catch limits for fishing and to rebuild in a timely manner stocks that had become depleted.

In the years since those improvements, the results have been striking: 44 fish stocks across country have been rebuilt to healthy levels, and overfishing is near all-time lows. Stocks like scallops have bounced back from low levels of abundance and make our own New Bedford the most profitable fishing port in the United States.

These gains haven't been enjoyed universally. Cod and other important fish remain depleted. For those and other stocks that are slow to rebound, science-based management will take more time.

But unfortunately, H.R. 200 moves us in the opposite direction by unwinding some of the core provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act responsible for the successes we've seen.

Fishing and the sustainable use of our ocean is woven into the cultural heritage of coastal communities across the state, and respect for the ocean runs deep among Bay Staters. As President Kennedy famously said, “We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came.”

Keating did the right thing for his constituency by rejecting the short-sighted, misguided approach of H.R. 200. Now, as the debate over our nation's ocean fishing law moves to the Senate, it is more important than ever that the rest of the Massachusetts delegation follows suit.

— John Houton is a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general and a former member of the Provincetown Harbor Committee.

(This story appeared in the Cape Cod Times on August 4, 2018.)