Thursday, February 13, 2014


In February, aspiring candidates for seats on regional fishery management councils must get their names in to governors’ appointment secretaries, and hope that something about their purported qualifications will catch a governor’s eye.  It is a highly political process, with representatives of national organizations representing conservation and fishing industry interests bringing whatever pressure they can in support of their chosen candidates.

Such efforts are made, of course, because the regional fishery management councils are effectively responsible for setting marine fisheries policy in the United States.  Thus, the various organizations are intent on advancing the names of candidates who will further—or, at the worst, not hinder—their corporate objectives.

The candidates usually have their own interest-driven agendas. Almost all are related, in some way, to the recreational or commercial fishing industry, although there have been a handful of folks appointed (including, about a decade ago, myself) who are merely recreational fishermen, and an even smaller number (offhand, I can only think of one) who represented mainstream conservation groups.

Ask most of the industry representatives why they are seeking appointment (apart from the money—council members are paid a per diem rate based on the same government pay grade applied to a brigadier general; if you know how to play the system and take advantage of the meeting schedule, you can get some pretty nice checks), and you’re likely to hear “to support my industry” or perhaps “to support my sector.”

That’s too bad, because when you hold a council seat, your job is to act in the best interests of the nation.  All of the nation, including the folks who you might not particularly like.  While you are expected to bring the experience and perspectives you’ve gained as a commercial fisherman, charter boat captain or angler to the table, so that everyone on the council can gain an appreciation for the needs and concerns extant in each fishery, when it comes time to a vote, you are supposed to put your own personal, industry and sector concerns aside and make a decision that is right for the nation as a whole.

That ideal is honored as much in the breach as in practice, sometimes because people who become council members didn’t really understand what they’re signing up for, sometimes because the people appointed couldn't care less about ideals.

Thus, when I was thumbing through the fisheries news a couple of weeks ago, it was refreshing to read an article from the Albany (Oregon) Democrat Herald.  It said that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was seeking folks interested in a seat on the Pacific Fishery Management Council (  And it noted that

“… the ideal candidate would be knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management of fishery resources off the West Coast.  Specific knowledge and experience on management issues and fisheries is also important as well as a strong conservation ethic.  They must also work collectively with other council members to make difficult decisions to end overfishing and fulfill other standards set forth by the Magnuson Act…”
Imagine if we had had candidates like that up in New England for the past 15 or 20 years! If the New England Fishery Management Council was filled with folks with “a strong conservation ethic” willing “to make difficult decisions to end overfishing,” we might have a recovered cod stock today, rather than a depleted population and a groundfish fleet rapidly transitioning toward irrelevance.

Winter flounder might be as abundant as they were thirty or forty years ago, not just the scattered remnants of stocks that we see today, remnants of stocks that have collapsed so badly that inbreeding has become a recognized threat.

In the Mid-Atlantic, council members with “a strong conservation ethic” might have adopted real and meaningful measures to protect anadromous forage fish—American shad, hickory shad, alewives and blueback herring—from bycatch losses in small mesh trawl fisheries.  Perhaps such council members would have been more concerned about the impacts of trawls on hard bottom habitat, or on tilefish habitat at the edge of the continental shelf.  Perhaps they would have even addressed the problems posed by abuses in the federal-waters tautog fishery.

In the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, maybe council members “willing to make the difficult decisions to end overfishing” would have found something better to do than think up new ways to avoid rebuilding red snapper and increasing the size of their kill.  Perhaps they would finally have taken a more holistic approach to reef fish management, and acknowledged that a seemingly minor species could bear a striking resemblance to a spring in one of their fishing reels—not a big part, but even so, something that the whole system just doesn’t work well without.

If they truly had “a strong conservation ethic,” council members in the southeast region might even acknowledge an unspoken and very inconvenient truth that has gone largely ignored so far:  Southern reefs are models of biodiversity, but the actual biomass is pretty low.  In other words, a lot of different kinds of fish live on the reefs, but the habitat is less productive than that normally found in cooler and more fertile seas.  If they admitted that fact, they’d also have to admit that long open seasons aren’t appropriate for southern reef fisheries; even if some stocks could support them, the bycatch of fish from stocks that couldn’t would be far too high.

That would be a “difficult decision” indeed…

And that explains why, today, Oregon stands alone.  In seeking council members with “a strong conservation ethic” willing to “make difficult decisions to end overfishing”, Oregon is seeking the same sort of people that the fishing industry tries to exclude.

Up in New England, the groundfish fleet is always thinking up new ways to evade the spirit of federal fisheries law, in order to kill more cod, flounder, haddock—fill in the blank with just about anything that swims and can be sold at a profit—than can be justified by science or even by common sense.  In the Mid-Atlantic, the recreational fishing industry, with help from the commercial side, has weakened measures intended to hold fishermen accountable for exceeding their allotted quotas.  And in the southeast, anglers’ rights groups are not only clamoring for an increased kill; they are trying to escape the constraints of federal fisheries law, so that their kill can exceed anything that the generally accepted science will allow.

It is not a pretty picture, and it has grown uglier since I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Council about a decade ago.

But there is hope.  We just need to get to work, and try to hasten the day when qualifications for council appointees from every state look like the qualifications for council appointees from Oregon.

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