What, Who & How Congress Can Improve Fishery Management Councils

Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

The reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA) that will dictate management of our nation’s fisheries for years to come is currently working its way through Congress. Much of the debate has focused on the effort to add more “flexibility” to rebuilding timelines (some flexibility already exists in the act). Unfortunately, a lot of other, and in my opinion, more pressing issues are receiving little to no attention. This is the third in a series of blog posts that will highlight some of the issues I feel should be addressed in the next version of this important legislation.

Don’t you just love this time of year? Spring training, planting gardens & planning for the upcoming summer are all rituals of hope that coincide with winter releasing its overly grey hold on our environment and our collective spirit. Although not quite as exciting, in the world of fishery management, our springtime ritual is the “council appointment process.” For true fisheries geeks like me, this is a time of speculation, surprise and in certain cases pure terrorizing fear.

I began to write a blog post about that process, and then it hit me like that first breath of spring air. Congress is debating reauthorization of our nation’s primary fisheries law, and no one is even considering improvements to how or who is managing our marine resources. I think reauthorization MUST include a review of our system of management and how we select managers. Thus, I present Basic Patrick’s guide to improving fishery management councils and how we choose their membership.

Fisheries management is split between state and federal waters. Management in state waters is exempt from MSA and is conducted by individual states and/or groups of states that in theory work together. I plan to share some thoughts about other legislation and the state waters “exemption” from MSA in a future blog post, but today we focus on our federal system of management.

Although the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducts the actual management of federal fisheries, MSA establishes eight regional councils to handle the bulk of our nation’s fishery management workload. Those eight are the New England (NEFMC), Mid-Atlantic (MAFMC), South Atlantic (SAFMC), Caribbean (CFMC), Gulf of Mexico (Gulf), Pacific (PFMC), North Pacific (NPFMC) & Western Pacific (WPFMC) Fishery Management Councils. The number of voting members is specific to each council and varies with the highest number being twenty-one on the MAFMC and the lowest being seven on the CFMC. The principle state marine fisheries official (state director) and the regional administrator (RA) of NMFS are permanent members.

I have never understood why along with NMFS, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is not a permanent voting member. Both are voting members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and having both is a great benefit. USFWS works on both species and habitat managed by the councils. USFWS is also the administrator of the Endangered Species Act and is constantly handling council issues related to ESA. I’d like to see Congress seriously consider adding USFWS as a permanent voting member of all eight councils. What do you think?

The US Secretary of Commerce appoints the rest of the council members. Members appointed by the Secretary can be generalized into two categories. On seven of the eight councils, MSA requires the Secretary appoint at least 1 member from each state. These are called “obligatory seats.” The rest are considered “at-large” seats, which can be filled by an individual from any state. There are a couple of exceptions. Oregon’s only vote on the NPFMC is the state director because MSA requires that out of seven appointed members, five must be from Alaska & two must be from the state of Washington. I’ve always been surprised the lack of a stakeholder seat from Oregon has not been more controversial. Maybe it makes sense and maybe it does not, but reauthorization is the time to make sure the system is fair and is working as well as possible. People of Oregon, speak now or forev…. There is another requirement that one member of the Pacific Council must be from “an Indian tribe with federally recognized fishing rights from CA, OR, WA or ID.”

Although my experience is focused on management of East Coast fisheries, besides the NPFMC, I have not heard of any controversy regarding the number of seats on the councils. There is much controversy concerning the North Pacific Council because with its state director and five appointed members, the one state of Alaska has a pure majority over Washington & Oregon combined. I don’t know all the issues involved, but I do know it is controversial and comes up over and over again. Appropriate or not, reauthorization is the time to review controversial aspects of the overall system.

What states have seats on which councils is an issue that comes up over and over again. An example is that Rhode Island is not a member of the Mid-Atlantic Council but is home to a large amount of both commercial and recreational participants in MAFMC-managed fisheries and is adjacent to waters under MAFMC jurisdiction. I try to stay open-minded but it is clear to me that RI deserves a seat on the MAFMC. A related issue is that climate change is already causing differences in migratory patterns, and availability of many species is changing. The issue of state participation is going to become even more and more frequent. It would seem a no brainer that MSA should anticipate this issue and include some measurable requirements to determine state participation during the coming years.

Governors nominate candidates to the Secretary of Commerce for appointment. MSA includes requirements, but a state is allowed to design its own process for selection of nominees. Appointed members serve three-year terms and have a term limit of three terms. When a seat becomes open or is up for renewal, the governor of an individual state is required to submit at least three nominees. Only one list is submitted for an obligatory seat; however, at large seats may see a list from any state involved with a specific council. Most states begin with public notice, an application & vetting. After that each state does things a bit differently. New Hampshire has a very interesting process where the state holds a town hall style public meeting where candidates are questioned, and from that meeting comes three nominees. Some governors rank their lists and others do not. One thing for sure is that the process is overly political, and many question if there might be a better way.

I like that states have the ability to create their own selection process because our nation is very diverse, and long ago I was taught that some state separation is necessary to maintain American democracy. I am in favor of some enhancement to the guidance given to states about nominations. Lets face facts, today’s politics tend to be dominated by those with the most money to spend on lobbyists etc., and our marine resources should be managed by a diverse group of stakeholders.

There are many who think fishing stakeholders serving on councils is a “fox watching the henhouse” situation, and I admit there is plenty of evidence within the New England Council alone to support those opinions. I feel the benefits of having stakeholders as council members far outweigh the drawbacks. I do acknowledge that there are councils where domination of one or two stakeholder groups has interrupted the theory of compromise and consideration that is at the heart of the council system. As a recreational stakeholder, I have plenty of experience watching the New England Council refuse to take on priorities of recreational fisheries because with only one or two members that have experience with recreational issues, the council has had no reason to care, and the one or two recreational members have not had enough clout to get an action off the ground. All these lone members can do is play defense. When national recreational or environmental organizations with similar opinions on the lack of diversity take their case to NMFS, there is a catch-22 response where NMFS tells these groups that that the Secretary can only appoint from the governor’s list. The lack of diversity on the councils is why I support the following be included in a reauthorized MSA.

I propose expansion of a requirement for nominees that is already in MSA but is limited to just the Gulf Council. Lists submitted by governors for the Gulf must contain (I)”at least one nominee each from the commercial, recreational, and charter fishing sectors; and (II) at least 1 other individual who is knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management of fisheries resources in the jurisdiction of the council.” Making this a requirement when states submit nominees for all council nominations would take us a long way toward a solution of many issues.

There is so much more I may revisit with this subject, but for now I simply hope I have made the case that a review of the council system and who serves on the councils must be included in the reauthorization debate. Together, I’m sure we can improve how we manage all fisheries; we have to!

About Patrick Paquette

Patrick Paquette is a recreational fisheries advocate from MA who covers the New England & Mid Atlantic Councils and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

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