How Should Fishery Management Councils Spend Most Of Their Time?

Charles Witek

Many fisheries conservation advocates were dismayed when, in October 2016, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) decided that it would not develop a management plan for shad and river herring, fish that some thought should be included as stocks in the Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish fisheries.

Although I would have preferred to see the MAFMC develop a management plan, and so give shad and river herring the protections provided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), I wasn’t particularly surprised by the decision. I had spoken with MAFMC members ahead of the vote, and got the impression that anadromous species just weren’t high on that council’s list of priorities.

One MAFMC member I spoke with said that it was time for the council to return its focus to fish such as bluefish, summer flounder and black sea bass.

He noted that the MAFMC had recently completed the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment, intended to protect key forage fish species from overexploitation, and that it had also just developed the first protections for deep-water corals in the Mid-Atlantic region. In his view, such ecosystem-based measures might have some value, but that they weren’t a part of MAFMC’s core mission, which was managing fish stocks that supported significant fisheries.

His comments weren’t unreasonable, but they started me thinking.

Just what was the mission of the MAFMC, and all of the other regional fishery management councils?

Was it to manage all “fish” in the ocean (Magnuson-Stevens’ definition of “fish” includes “finfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and all other forms of marine animal and plant life other than marine mammals and birds”)?

Or was it to concentrate management resources on economically important stocks, while paying far less attention to species that didn’t directly support lucrative fisheries?

Magnuson-Stevens directs the regional fishery management councils to, “for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management, prepare and submit to the Secretary [of Commerce] (A) a fishery management plan, and (B) amendments to each such plan that are necessary from time to time.”

The law defines “fishery” as “one or more stocks of fish which can be treated as a unit for purposes of conservation and management and which are identified on the basis of geographical, scientific, technical, recreational and economic characteristics; and…any fishing for such stocks.”

Based on that language alone, one could argue that a regional fishery management council has an obligation to produce a management plan for any marine animal or plant (excluding only birds and marine mammals) under its authority which is in need of conservation and management, whether or not such stocks are being actively fished.

On the other hand, the stated findings and purposes, which underlie Magnuson-Stevens, tell a very different story and emphasize economic concerns.

One finding states that America’s “fisheries resources contribute to the food supply, economy, and health of the Nation and provide recreational opportunities.” Another asserts that “Commercial and recreational fishing constitutes a major source of employment and contributes significantly to the economy of the Nation…”

Magnuson-Stevens also contains a finding that “A national program for the development of fisheries which are underutilized or not utilized by the United States fishing industry…is necessary to assure that our citizens benefit from the employment, food supply, and revenue which could be generated thereby.” That finding is joined by one with a more local focus, which says that “Pacific Insular Areas contain unique historical, cultural, legal, political, and geographical circumstances which make fisheries resources important in sustaining their economic growth.”

There are no similar findings that emphasize the importance of intact ecosystems. The only one that mentions ecosystems at all states that “A number of the Fishery Management Councils have demonstrated significant progress in integrating ecosystem considerations in fisheries management using the existing authorities provided under this Act,” without an accompanying statement as to why such approach is important.

Another finding states that “Habitat considerations should receive increased attention,” but only because marine habitat loss poses “One of the greatest long-term threats to the viability of commercial and recreational fisheries.”

The findings thus paint a picture of Magnuson-Stevens as a law which only concerns itself with ecosystems issues when such issues have a direct bearing on economically important activities.

Such picture is reinforced by the stated purposes of the law.

One such purpose is “to promote domestic commercial and recreational fishing under sound conservation and management principles…” Another is “to encourage the development by the United States fishing industry of fisheries which are currently underutilized or not utilized by United States fishermen…”

There is no similar stated purpose to promote the preservation of marine ecosystems, or to encourage the preservation of fish stocks which are not currently harvested, although the need to protect essential fish habitat is specifically mentioned.

The emphasis on economically important fisheries, as opposed to ecosystem considerations, was reinforced when the National Marine Fisheries Service released revised guidelines intended to help regional fishery management councils apply the provisions of Magnuson-Stevens to fishery management plans.

One of the key sections of the revised guidelines addressed the question of when a stock of fish “requires conservation and management.”

While the language of the statute seems to give a regional fishery management council broad discretion in deciding that question, the guidelines set forth ten discreet criteria which should be used in making such decision. One is whether “The stock is an important component of the marine environment.”

That is the only criterion that relates to the ecosystem. The remainder include considerations such as “The stock is a target of a fishery,” “The stock is important to commercial, recreational, or subsistence users,” “The fishery is important to the Nation or to the regional economy,” “The economic condition of a fishery and whether [a fishery management plan] can produce more efficient utilization,” and “The needs of a developing fishery, and whether [a fishery management plan] can foster orderly growth.”

Thus, it’s probably safe to argue that, as things stand today, the regional fishery management councils should be spending most of their time managing economically important species, rather than addressing ecosystem issues.

It’s also probably safe to argue that such emphasis on existing fisheries for a relative handful of species will not provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation in the long term, and thus creates an obstacle to achieving optimum yield from the nation’s fish stocks.

Fish do not live in a vacuum. Each species, whether economically important or not, interacts with and affects a host of other species. It is impossible to impose management measures on a single stock and not have such measures impact other stocks within the same ecosystem.

Even that statement is an oversimplification, for it suggests that the ecosystems themselves are static, and that each fish has but one place in a single ecosystem. The truth is far more complex.

The river herring caught in an offshore mackerel trawl swims in very different waters from a river herring being chased by striped bass in Long Island Sound, which enters yet another ecosystem as it ascends a river to spawn; however, a single fish will pass through all three environments over the course of a year. A summer flounder exists in two very different worlds when it hunts shrimp in the channels of a shallow coastal bay and when it winters, sixty fathoms down, at the edge of the continental shelf.

In each case, such fish are part of a web of predators and prey that works best, on behalf of all of its members, when every strand of that web is intact.

Thus, should Congress decide to address Magnuson-Stevens in the upcoming session, it would do well to amend the law in a way that requires regional fishery management councils to place a greater emphasis on maintaining healthy and intact ecosystems. For when such ecosystems thrive, the economically important fish that they host are more likely to thrive as well.

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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