After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
FISHERIES MANAGEMENT: SCIENCE, POLICY AND POLITICS
It’s nice to think that salt water fish are managed solely by
concerned scientists, who look at the data available and always make decisions
that will best guarantee that stocks will be sustainably harvested and
available to us in the long term.
But that’s not the case.
Science plays a role. Both the various coastal states and the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) employ biologists who assess and
advise on the management of various fish stocks. However, after the scientists
have their say, two other factors come into play: Policy and politics.
Policy can be defined as the guidelines managers employ when
they decide how data provided by scientists will be used to manage fish stocks.
Policies are needed, for one set of data may suggest multiple
courses of action. If, for example, scientists establish a maximum harvest level
to prevent overfishing, two separate policy questions immediately arise.
The first is, perhaps, the most basic. Will managers heed the
scientific advice, and restrict harvest to sustainable levels, or will they
ignore the long-term health of the stock in order to maximize short-term
“It is the policy of the state that the primary principle in
managing the state’s marine fishery resource is to maintain the long-term
health and abundance of marine fisheries resources and their habitats, and to
ensure that the resources are sustained in usable abundance and diversity for
“Conservation programs and management measures shall be designed
to prevent overfishing and maintain over time, abundant, self-sustaining stocks
of coastal fishery resources.”
However, the same section of the charter notes that
“Social and economic benefits and impacts must be taken into
Neither conservation nor socio-economic considerations are given
clear precedence over the other. The result has been a series of management
plans that often impose restrictive measures on fishermen but, because of
social and economic concerns, have not been restrictive enough to rebuild
depleted fish stocks. ASMFC’s failed fishery
management plan for tautog is a good example.
Assuming that managers do restrict landings, they must then
confront the second policy question: Who gets to catch the fish?
That is becoming an increasingly complicated question.
Once, managers only had to worry about the recreational and
commercial sectors. Both had their own views on who should receive the lion’s
share of the catch, and rarely saw eye-to-eye, but at least they were easy to
In recent years, both sectors have broken down into squabbling
sub-sectors, each of which has its own view on how stocks should be managed.
Not long ago, a conflict broke out in
Alaska, which pitted the hook-and-line halibut fleet, the only vessels
allowed to commercially fish for Alaskan halibut, against the factory trawlers
fleet, which may not sell halibut, but inevitably kills quite a few as it
captures cod, pollock and other species for sale on the world’s markets.
At a time when the halibut population is declining and
regulations are growing more restrictive, should the small-boat halibut fishery
be put out of business because the trawl fleet can’t control its bycatch?
Should halibut fishermen, which have a relatively small economic impact, be
able to threaten the operations of the multi-million-dollar trawler fleet, in
the name of reducing halibut bycatch? Such policy questions have not yet been
Under Magnuson-Stevens, there is no question that the
scientists’ data will be used to manage fish stocks, as the law clearly declares that
“Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the
best scientific information available.”
Nor is there any question that stocks will be managed for
long-term sustainability, since the law also decrees that
“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing
while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for
the United States fishing industry.”
And provides that
“If it becomes necessary
to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such
allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen; (B)
reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (C) carried out in such
manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an
excessive share of such privileges.”
So we have a law that sets clear policies about the use of the
best available science, conserving fish stocks and allocating such stocks among
various users. But can it pass political muster?
To date, it always has. One of the strengths of Magnuson-Stevens
is that, as a federal law, it was passed, and may only be amended, after lengthy
congressional deliberation that allows people from all over the nation to have
a say. It is not the product of the sort of local political pressures that too
often shape laws at the state level.
On the other hand, Magnuson-Stevens remains vulnerable to the
various interest groups that seek to weaken its strong conservation provisions.
Just last year, H.R. 1335, which
would do just that, was passed by the House of Representatives.
Fortunately, the Senate didn’t take any action.
Still, the threat remains, for there will always be those who
will seek to overthrow Magnuson-Stevens’ successful balance of scientific,
policy and political considerations, and replace it with laws that reflect
their own parochial interests. Such loss of balance would, in the end, hurt us
all. ----- "Fisheries Management: Science, Policy and Politics" first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://www.conservefish.org/blog/