Fisheries Management: Science, Policy & Politics

Red Snapper

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 economic benefits?

Sometimes, the answer to such a question is established by legislation. In New York, Section 13-0105 of the Environmental Conservation Law begins:

“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 future generations.”

That’s a pretty clear statement of policy. Although it has never been tested in court, it provides a good foundation for management actions. Other policy statements may be more ambiguous. The Charter of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission states that

“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 account.”

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 tell apart.

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 fully resolved.

Similar problems trouble the recreational sector. In the Gulf of Mexico, a federal district court has recently upheld an amendment to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s reef fish management plan that split the recreational allocation of red snapper into two separate annual catch limits, one applied to anglers fishing from federally licensed for-hire vessels, and the other to the remainder of the angling community.

The anglers who brought the lawsuit were already extremely unhappy with the harvest restrictions that had been imposed upon them in order to rebuild the red snapper stock, and became even more displeased after the judge released her decision. And that discontent is leading directly into the political arena.

Gulf red snapper anglers convinced their congressional representatives to sponsor legislation that would strip NMFS of its authority to manage red snapper in federal waters, and turn such authority over to the states. Since those states have already adopted recreational fishing seasons well in excess of the season prevailing in federal waters, it is likely that the proposed transfer of management would result in anglers overfishing red snapper, possibly halting the recovery of the once-overfished stock.

That would not be a desirable result, and illustrates why the health of America’s marine fish populations depends upon a strong and effective Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which governs fishing in all federal waters.

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.

Red Snapper photo by Dave Hickson via NOAA

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and award-winning blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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