The head of the agency overseeing ocean research and fisheries says the federal government has no interest in consolidating the nation's fishing industry into the hands of a few large companies.
Instead, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said the government can help craft rules to protect smaller, family-run fisheries that have traditionally plied the nation's coastal waters.
"Small fishing communities are a valuable part of our natural heritage and our culture. They are a lot of what makes special places along the coastline special," Lubchenco told The Associated Press this week.
"Fishing is about a lot more than just economics. It's about providing healthy, safe seafood. It's about jobs. But it's also about place. It's about culture. It's about community. And those are all important, and I think need to be maintained," she added.
The comments from Lubchenco, whose agency oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, come as commercial fishers struggle with declining stocks and tighter regulations.
In New England, fishers are planning to switch by next year to a new "catch-share" system that allocates a total catch to groups of fishers, who divide it among themselves.
That would replace the existing system, which tries to stop overfishing in part by restricting the time fishers are allowed to spend at sea.
That system has taken a toll on the local fishing fleet, narrowing the number of days people can fish to about two dozen annually for many in New England.
Environmentalists back the new system, saying it will stop overfishing by limiting how much of a certain species can be caught, while at the same time giving people more control over how to catch the fish.
Lubchenco said the new system can be structured in such a way as to help smaller fishing operations.
"You can design a catch-share program to prevent ending up with just a few big companies," she said. "That is and will be an active part of the discussions about catch-share programs as we are designing them."
Not all fishers are convinced the government wants to help preserve their way of life.
John Haviland, a Massachusetts fisherman with 34 years of commercial experience, said if it weren't for individual fishers pushing back, they would have long ago been squeezed out of the market.
The problem, Haviland said, is that the fishing limits and the cost of government regulations and oversight are making it increasingly difficult for anyone to turn a profit except for larger operations with fleets of boats.
"I personally have the opinion that the fisheries service and NOAA have for a long time wanted to consolidate the East Coast fisheries, and the only thing that hasn't gone their way is that the small boat commercial fishermen have put up a fight," Haviland said.
Key is monitoring systems
One key to the success of a catch-share system is an accurate accounting of which fish are being caught. Lubchenco said the government has been investing in the design of new, more accurate monitoring systems.
She also tried to allay fears that some fishers may be tempted to underreport their catch.
"With catch-share programs, fishermen are more likely to want everyone in the fishery to be abiding by the rules," she said.
Lubchenco said she would also be opposed to relaxing fishing limits on specific species of fish. Fishers are skeptical of the science used to formulate fishing rules, citing shifting estimates of various species.
Despite the occasionally frosty sentiments between the federal government and local fishers, Lubchenco said she hopes to forge a strong relationship with fishing communities in the future.
"I see them as our natural allies," she said. "In the end, we care about the same things, and that's the health of the fisheries, the health of the fish."