Dr. Vaughan Anthony is on the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council in Boothbay, Maine.


The ground fishery in New England has begun to show a slow recovery in some areas, but a lot of the marine scientists still refer to it as the poster child for a fishery that was not being operated sustainably. Could you summarize the state of cod stocks and the quotas that were set during your tenure at the National Marine Fisheries Service?

They didn't actually use quotas for cod or haddock or groundfish. When ICNAF died in '75 and we went the 200-mile limit, we had catch quotas leftover from ICNAF. And we kind of used them for a year or two. But they weren't really enforced and by 1981 or 1982 the interim plan came in and they got rid of quotas because we didn't need them anymore. So we got rid of quotas unfortunately. And people didn't like them. It was a dirty word.

So during your tenure at NMFS and at the New England Fishery Management Council, were the stocks going downhill?

Between '75 and '82, I would say the fishing effort and mortality rate doubled in New England. When the 200-mile limit came in, people thought they could harvest tremendous quantities of fish. And the numbers of boats and sizes of vessels exploded. And fishing stocks went from being underfished to overfished in about four years.

And the science was ignored early on. The New England Councils effectively abolished the scientific and statistical committees because they didn't need them anymore. So the attitude was that we didn't need stock assessments and we didn't need management. Leave us alone. Let us do our thing.

So the scientists at Woods Hole didn't interact with the New England Council very much during the early '80s. It was the middle '80s before we got back together with them and gave them advice. And it still took 4 or 5 years before they followed it. People had to see for themselves how bad things were before they were to admit they even had a problem.

I had no idea there was no management for such a long period.

In the West Coast, the Scientific and Statistical Committee meets with the Council at every monthly meeting. We didn't even have meetings. We didn't exist. We were abolished. And later on when we did have a meeting and were asked to do something, the report never was sent to the Council. They did not want the information. They did not want to be bothered with the facts and the data. They wanted to continue to do their own thing. And they didn't want the science to interfere.

When NMFS started becoming more involved in the 80's, even when they realized they had a problem and the quotas started to be used, were they watering down some of the recommendations you were making at that time?

No, they weren't watering them down. We were very careful in how we put them together. We set up a peer review stock assessment working group and we made sure that twice a year we met in Woods Hole with people from all the states -- from academia, scientists from the West Coast, Canada, even Europe -- people who didn't know what our fishes were.. And we made sure that whatever we did, it was highly based on peer-reviewed science.

And we met with the Councils and made sure that we wrote those results up in such a way that they could understand them. And we standardized our results and they were very happy with how we did our work and how we presented the information. They didn't question the data. And while we didn't know everything and didn't answer all their questions, we had good rapport with them. They learned very early on that what we were telling them was the best information that we could pull together. So they had faith in what we produced.

The problem was in trying to control tremendous fishing effort and mortality in the stocks. Technology was increasing tremendously by these guys and every year they were improving their techniques and how they caught fish -- the vessels, the gear, the fish-finding equipment. They got better and better and better. And a lot of people did not want direct mortality controls. People thought by adjusting the mesh size a little bit here and there or putting in an enclosed area that would reduce the mortality rate by 20 to 30%. A lot people really believed that.

And we told them it wouldn't work. We said we knew that back in the '30s. But they didn't want to hear that. They wanted to prove to their constituency back home, their fishing friends and their buddies and themselves that maybe doing something would result in some benefit. And in the back of their mind they just hoped to get a good year class come through and they would solve all these problems. It never happened, of course.

So they didn't water down what we said. They just tried to put through indirect measures that were not effective. And many of them really wanted to manage right but they didn't know how to do it. Most of the people on the Council were not scientists. They certainly were not fish managers. Some of them were retired used car salesmen. There were sport fishermen, fsh dealers, fishermen. Very few of them had any knowledge about fish management and what would work and what would not work.

So they tried everything. If it didn't work, they didn't mind so much because their buddies were making big bucks as the stocks were declining.

How about Grand Bank? Are the Canadian waters in bad shape?

They're not as bad as we are. They've got a problem because of the northern cod stock, which is a long story. But they've done a better job overall than we have because they used effort controls back as early as '75 and we didn't start doing them until the '80s. But they have similar problems.

And they have other problems because their area is so much bigger. And they have other countries that they have to consider. And they have environmental problems and seal problems. We don't have the environmental problems really to speak of. And we don't have foreign nationalists to worry about anymore. We have a smaller area and a more productive area.

What do you mean by environmental problems?

Water temperature going up or down, or some really bad storms the wrong time of year and so forth. We've been really lucky. Water temperature has really been up and holding up which is one of the reasons why we have such good lobsteries right now. Since 1975, water temperature has been holding up at a pretty good level and fairly steady. It's really helped a lot of resources.

Did you ever yourself attend a New England Fishery Management Council meeting and witness the process wherein your recommendations were discounted to some degree?

Oh no. In the late '80s and in the '90s, I attended almost all the meetings. And I used to give my stock assessment results of our stock assessment-working group to the committee. They wanted to hear that sort of stuff, but some of them would admit that they weren't going to do anything about it.

But many of them listened. Many of them wanted to do things but there's no way a lot of them were going to just put on restrictions to their fishermen back home. They wouldn't be on the Council very long. Many of them wanted to keep their seats. They just hoped for a miracle that things would turn around. They just didn't know how to bring the stock back without putting fishermen out of business or cutting down the fishermen so much that fishermen just couldn't make a go of it.

Fishermen are the worst businessmen in the world. They're really good fishermen. But they don't plan their business very well. And if they don't make their payments on a boat from month to month, they're in tough shape. They live hand-to-mouth existence and you can't run a business that way. Naturally you have stocks that go up and down. You have to allow for good and bad times. And they don't do that. And the only way they can continue is to overfish when stocks are bad and catch as many as they can when things are good.

What changes do you think have to happen in the management regime here in New England to keep history from repeating itself, so that special interests just don't discount science and so forth?

We still got a conflict of interest problem. We got people sitting on the New England Council now that own two or three boats, buying from the boats. They're some of the best people on the Council as a matter of fact. But it's very hard for them to make hard decisions against themselves. We also have people there that still don't understand science, don't understand management. We need to develop professional managers on the Council.

Number one, you can't manage a resource working only a couple days a month like the Councils do, particularly when you've got a tough problem like you do in New England. You've got to know what you're doing. And these people don't know what works and what doesn't work. And it changes every two or three years. By the time they get on top of things and know pretty much what's going on, they're replaced and somebody else comes along on the Council.

Another thing is scientists don't have much of a role. Scientists need to be at the table voting on the issues. So that if something goes through that is scientifically wrong, a scientist has to say so or be in a position to say something about it. We need more science to understand population dynamics, what fishing mortality rates are, what it means when stocks are at a certain levels.

And we need to get rid of this conflict of interest bit and get people on the Council that are not fishermen, that are not dealers, and not wide-eyed conservationists either who just want to conserve period.

As a scientist, what is your opinion of ITQ's?

If you asked me my personal, social, individual point of view for the Maine coast, I'd be against them. The Maine coast is characterized by small-boat fisheries; mostly small communities. They don't make a lot of money but they have a way of life that's wonderful. They enjoy what they're doing. They like to compete with one another for what they're catching. They don't want ownership necessarily. They want to go and compete with their buddies for catching the fish. They want to have a community that they've always had.

And far as I'm concerned, that's the kind of thing we want to foster. It's really social objectives that I'm talking about. You probably wouldn't want to maximize all your catches of fish. And it would vary like crazy up and down the coast. I would want those kinds of dynamics to be the background of a fishery program on the Maine coast. So I would not want ITQs for most of Northern New England.

In other places ITQs work very well. It's very efficient. It's paid off. And you find people all the time arguing the benefits of one against the other. And I think there are places for both of them. That's where the managers have to come in and say we want to do what's best for the community in this part of the world with these given species and the state they're in.

But generally I don't like ITQs. I'm just scared of them. I like to have an old-fashioned guy having the Maine way of life continue as much as possible.

Taking into account the crash of cod and groundfish and their slow recovery, do you think New England fishermen and representatives of the fishing industry are now more prepared to bite the bullet and allow for closed areas, lower quotas, limited days at sea?

I think they are. They've come around a lot now. Fishermen have had a chance to experience low catches for a long period of time and they have a pretty good idea of what's going on with the status of stocks. For a long time, they were in a period of denial and they didn't want to believe that the stocks were low. And I think they all pretty well know what's going on. So many of them are willing to charge ahead and do what's right.

I think the Councils now are the best it's ever been. I think they're trying to do what's right now. They're more educated now than they ever were. They're smarter in general than they were. They know what needs to be done. They're following the rules. They're befuddled now with the tremendous numbers of regulations and things they're trying to do. And they can't keep track of everything. And of course the Magnuson Act is changing constantly, evolving for the good, but what's defined as overfishing is changing, and the economics and the definitions are changing. And they can't keep up with it and they're frustrating. It's a tough job and they need to be working almost 30 days a month not a couple of days. They need to spend more time with what they're trying to do.

I think we're going to have to bite the bullet and do some stuff. And the Council is doing it now. They've lowered the fishing mortality rate. That's why haddock and cod and yellow-tipped flounder have come back on Georges Bank. They've reduced the mortality rate just like we said it would happen. You cut that mortality rate down; they're going to come back. And the productivity is very high and still is high. You give these fish half the chance and they're going to come back.

Now that you've knocked back the fishing effort, how long will it take a cod to regenerate? And second, what do you think about the habitat issue that Les Watling is working on? He's saying it's going to take longer because the bottom doesn't have the high relief it used to because the trawls are knocking that relief down and the juvenile fish don't have anyplace to hide.

We've been dragging on these bottoms since the 1920s and we still see very high level of productivity of these resources. The other side of the coin is you're turning over the bottom all the time and in one sense you're re-fertilizing the place all the time by digging up the bottom. You're losing a lot of animals and plants on the bottoms you might like to have. But if you're just talking about the food supply for some of these fish, I'm not sure you're doing that much damage.

How long does it take cod to regenerate under ideal circumstances?

Here in Georges Bank, you can catch a cod at age 3 or 4 and do pretty well harvesting them at a reasonable rate. The problem is when you're rebuilding a spawning stock you need many different age groups within that spawning stock. You need 4 or 5 good year classes in there. What traditionally happens is you get one good year stock come along, like the '98 class of haddock, that will build up but the following age group will be low. And the following will be low. And then you'll have a good one again. So you need 3 or 4 good year class in your spawning stock biomass to be healthy.

You can have a fairly high number on a short-term basis that gives you good spawners but it's going to decline pretty soon because it's going to die off. You need a broad-based spawning stock of several ages. That's when we say it's fully recovered. It's just not when you have an awful lot of one size fish coming back.

So you think the Councils have come around attitude-wise and they've realized, and yet they're still catching more than 50% of the stocks?

In the Gulf of Maine, they have. What happened is that when they shut down the mortality rate in Georges, a lot of people that fish Georges moved up into the Gulf of Maine. And so the pressure is going up in the Gulf of Maine. And the spawning stock is still declining in the Gulf of Maine. It still hasn't come back. But in Georges Bank they have cut the mortality rate down and the Georges Bank cod is rebuilding.

There's some new language in the law that says that fishery managers in the U.S. are supposed to start giving credence to what's called the precautionary principle. Do you believe in that?

Oh yes. That's something we've been pushing for a long time. It came out of FAO some time ago, the Code of Professional Conduct and so forth. Basically the precautionary principle is you don't let the fact that you don't know everything stop you from making sensible progress when you know something should be done. And for years people have used this, particularly in New England, saying if we don't know everything about everything we shouldn't do anything. So the point is if you know something needs to be done and you don't know everything, the point is to proceed in the right direction and learn as you go, and not to back away.

We heard rumors that at times pressure is brought to bear on a regional agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service from Capitol Hill, that the word coming down from up high is that they have to back off on the severity of the management. Have you ever known that to happen in New England?

Well, politicians for years have jumped on the bandwagon of the fishermen and when the fishermen say that you shouldn't be so restrictive because we think maybe your data aren't good enough or we're just trying to make a living, politicians always support them because there are many more votes from them than there are from the scientists. It's been very frustrating for me to read the letter from the Council saying we're going to protect you people from those awful scientists type of thing and even the Council people laugh at some stuff. But politicians are politicians. They remain politicians.

In light of everything you were advising and what came to pass, have you ever felt vindicated? Has anyone on the management Council ever say that they should've listened to you?

Oh, yes. Before I retired, they all did. We had no problem with the managers back in the early '90s. I think that almost everybody who listened to us and heard what we had to say believed us and had faith in everything we did. And some of our worst enemies early on were our greatest pals in the end because we had a peer-reviewed scientific system that was wide open that anybody could look at and there was nothing hidden. If we ever had an opportunity to give them data or explain something, we did. And we had great credibility in what we did. The managers were no problem. And they always said we didn't have any problems with our numbers. We were honest as we could possibly be and we proved ourselves over and over. We've been doing this since the '70s. We got their respect.

And when I retired, I had a lot of people say the reason they didn't listen way back when was because they had their own agenda. They were making money. And they weren't going to follow any regulations no matter how useful they were. And people say they wished they had followed but it was difficult for them to do that at that time. Their hearts were in the right place.

The scientists at Woods Hole have a reputation in the world of being the best. And they have been all the time I was there and they still do. And you talk to people that really count in the scientific field in Norway and Germany and Scotland and they can tell you what kind of science we had at Woods Hole. And I'm very proud of what we did down there. And there's nothing that I feel bad about at all.

Is it true that had the environmental groups not sued the National Marine Fisheries Service at one point, some critical changes that are operating now wouldn't have happened?

Prior to about the late '80s or the early '90s, we didn't have any environmental groups in the Council meetings at all. The Conservation Law Foundation and other groups came along and started taking notice of what we were doing. I don't like some of these radical conservation groups. They're really scary and they're nuts. But these people really were helpful. They stood up and did something we scientists could not do. God bless them, they were the only group that was saying: "Hey, the scientists are saying things and you guys don't seem to be listening to them. Why aren't you listening to them?"

And that forced the managers to think twice about what we were saying and go back and say, well Vaughn, what did you say again? Tell us this again. And gave us another opportunity to speak. And so it allowed us to take a little bit more of an active role in the management system. So they were very helpful. Then when they sued NMFS for not doing what we were supposed to do that opened up the gates and set limits of stock size and things that we had to meet. And the science was there. And the Council had to find a way to do it. And that led to reductions in mortality rates on Georges Bank and recovery of the stock.

But what about fishes that never returned, like redfish?

When people sue the National Marine Fisheries Service, it's been a lost cause every time. They've never won because the science has been very good. We don't know everything about everything but we have a lot of good basic science that has always been good enough for the kind of management that the Council put forth because the management hasn't been very detailed and hasn't required extensive data. So the suing has really done no good.

Every time we get sued, it exacerbates the whole management system tremendously and does nobody any good. And so far the suing is a very ineffective method of trying to meet a certain need and usually that need is a smoke screen to delay some action on a system. And it's a shame people have to resort to that foolishness because as far as I'm concerned, there's ample opportunity for people to get in the system and ask the right questions and demand the right answers and so forth. And people who don't know how to do that, they resort to something like suing and it's frustrating to see it happen.

Sue Salveson, of NMFS in Juneau, also talks about the headaches of being sued all the time and how it takes people away from what they should be doing. And in your view there's ample opportunity for people who question what's going on to get involved. But if the management didn't listen to you, they certainly wouldn't have listened to someone with the Conservation Law Foundation, unless they did sue. Wouldn't that be true?

I think early on that was the situation. I think the suing back in the early '90s really turned things around in New England. It really made a difference. And I hate to say it, but I'm glad that that action happened. The conservation groups, God bless them, got in there and came in at the right time and provided a useful function. A lot times they just get in the way and get emotional and get foolish and start talk about all kinds of crazy things.

Anything else you want to add?

One of the big problems we have today is the fact that we're getting dedicated funding from Washington that doesn't allow the National Marine Fisheries Service to have the flexibility to do what it needs to do. They don't have the flexibility to do sea sampling, for example, for groundfish. They spend a lot money doing sea sampling for marine mammals but the money is coming down dedicated for certain areas. And so much is dedicated along certain lines so that when it comes down to some places like Woods Hole, Woods Hole doesn't have the flexibility to use that money in efficient way and provide all the answers to Council. So NMFS is suffering right now.

We've gotten to the stage now finally where I think NMFS is going to not be able to provide the information the Councils need for management. And for the first time, they're going to have a correct statement when they say they can't do their job because they don't have the information they need to do it. And that would be a first and it's too bad that the science isn't going to be good enough for them to manage.

I know you've done consulting elsewhere in the world. We've also been to Indonesia, the Philippines, and down in Latin America. And in a lot of these places, not only do they not have any funding for fisheries management, oftentimes they don't even have a fisheries management plan. How is that ever going to get to turn around? Elsewhere in the world fisheries are going to hell.

What's going to have to happen is like any other business. The people who are making money and doing the fishing and so forth are going to have to hire their own scientists and do their own management. If you're buying and selling corn, you have to get your own scientists to go out with the farmers and work and do that sort of thing. You don't rely on the government. You do it yourself.

A few people have control of the resource and make a lot of money, then time comes and they do their own research. They pay for their own scientists. They develop their own research programs. They don't rely on the government any more for anything. That's going to happen more and more. So you're going to see a lot of freelance biologists being paid by the people who are making the money. I think it's like any other business. We're going to have to go in that direction and not rely on the federal government or the state government.

It's becoming almost a mantra worldwide -- too many boats chasing after too few fish. And everyone's talking about population growth and we've got 6 billion people. And 15 of the 17 most important global commercial fisheries are either fully exploited or being depleted. Do you think we have a population problem? Or do you think there's just too much fishing effort and the answer is what you prescribed for New England, which is to actually reduce effort? Can this be done worldwide?

Part of the problem worldwide is that fishermen have become extremely efficient at catching fish. So even if we had the same number of people today you had before, you'd have too many because each guy now is worth ten guys ten years ago. So technology has improved so much that you don't need as many fishermen. And the fishermen won't go away.

We do have a big population problem--there's just too many people. This is true.But there is a limit to what we can catch. The cod on Georges Bank, you can't take more than 35 thousand tons. Or haddock, you probably never go back and take more than 45 thousand if you're lucky. And in the Gulf of Maine, you can't take anymore than 10 thousand tons of cod. But we should be taking that. We should manage our fishery in such a way that we are maximizing our catch if we want to meet those goals of feeding all the people.

So it sounds like you're saying that it is a renewable resource if you manage it correctly, but even that has its limits.

That's right. We know what those limits are. But we're not even close to the limits though. It's frustrating because we know. If scientists were put in charge and they were god or czar overnight and they were allowed to control the fishing mortality, we could increase the catch in New England by a factor of 3 almost in a matter of 4 or 5 years if we did the right thing. We will be there someday. We have a great opportunity to improve our catches and have a good fishery again. And we're going to do that.

In a best case scenario, if all of a sudden the stocks are back to levels they were 15 or 20 years ago, how do you manage it? What kind of quotas do you set? How do you keep the stock up?

Like I said earlier, for groundfish as a general rule, you should harvest no more than 25-30% of the stock annually. That means you leave 75% of the fish in the ocean every year. So you go out there and you look off your vessel and you see lots of fish down there, you take 1/4 of them and you leave 3/4 behind. Now you've got to find a way to do that.

And I personally think the best way is with effort regulations. You've got to know what these guys can do and you keep them tied to the dock and don't let them go out there because they're going to catch them. And you can use a catch quota as a check and balance on what they're doing. And you need very tight control. You need to monitor them very carefully. They'll overfish in a heartbeat if you give them just a chance. So you got to force them not to overfish the resource.

I'm a big believer in inefficiencies. The Magnuson Act says that we should push for efficiencies in how you harvest fish. And that's one of the biggest problems I've had with the Magnuson Act. I think when you look at the social dynamics of fisheries, if we had tied people's hands behind their backs a little bit over the years and made them fight a little bit they would've been better off because they wouldn't have overfished the fish so quickly. And they still would've been able to compete and they would've been happy.

What do you mean by inefficiencies and 'tying one hand behind the back'?

Limit the size of the trolls, not allow them to use rockhopper gear, limit the size of horsepower of their vessels, not allow big boats to fish in certain areas, have sanctuaries in certain places, bigger mesh sizes; a whole variety of things. Just limit the way they fish. Just make it harder for them to land the fish. Make it more inefficient for them because they're so good at catching.

These fishermen today have really used technology. They don't even steer the boat or look out the window anymore. They just press the buttons. Today they don't even look out the wheel house anymore. They just press a button and go from these coordinates to those coordinates. Anybody can do it once you understand how to run a computer.

Most of the complaints out of fishermen are, "We want to go fishing like we did in the old days; we don't really want to get rich; and I want to compete with my buddy over there and I want to see if I can catch 2 more fish than he does." And as long as they make a reasonable living, that's all they really care about.

But many of these guys bought several boats and got big boats and they're going in to optimizing their profits and made a big business out of it. And then when some of these guys can't pay for the boat, they say, What do I do? Bail me out. And now they're begging the government to bail them out and give them the money because they bought a boat and they don't have the inventory. They're just poor businessmen. If you're running a general store and you do that, tough, you'll go bankrupt. But if you're a fisherman or a farmer, the government bails you out. So these guys are not very good businessmen that way. But what they really want to do, they just want to go fishing. They want to make a decent living, that's all.