A Fishery Council System of the People, by the People, and for the People

Derek Breaux

It is said that if someone is completely happy at the end of a compromise, then there truly was never a compromise at all. This is as evident as ever at any Gulf Council meeting, which often is a frustrating week that leads to a lot of postponed decision making and plenty of hard feelings. When we fishermen don’t get our way, the easiest thing to blame is our regional fishery management council. However, we would be amiss if we failed to look at how successful the process of democracy and transparency has been for our country and, more specifically, our fisheries in the past. Despite the years it takes sometimes to see our efforts met with personal gratification, we must consider that we plant trees not for the enjoyment of ourselves, but for the enjoyment of our future generations. The same goes for our fisheries.

The United States of America is home to some of, if not the most robust and well-managed marine resources in the world. Though our past is sometimes dark and filled with a disregard for the longevity of our resources, we now have a better understanding of different management strategies that ensure these fisheries resources will remain beneficial to our environment and economy for generations to come. But who manages these fisheries?

The answer is fairly simple. Each state has “state waters” that range from 3 to 9 nautical miles from its defined coastal border. Anything that extends from the farthest state water boundary out to 200 nautical miles makes up our country’s “Exclusive Economic Zone” (EEZ). Naturally, the states are in control of regulating state waters, and governmental agencies (NOAA, the Coast Guard, etc.) are in charge of regulating our EEZ.

This can further be broken down to look at who helps to make the rules themselves. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAA) is an organization that provides scientific data based upon agency and third-party research. This data is then used by the eight regional fishery management councils that were created in 1976 with the passing of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, later to be renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Act. However, unless you are a fisherman, you have likely never heard of your regional council (here in the Gulf of Mexico, we have the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. To find your local council, please refer to this website.)

The members sitting on the councils themselves are commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, scientists, business owners, and one federally appointed representative from NOAA. Here is how members are chosen, as per NOAA’s website:

“In accordance with Section 302 of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) is required to appoint the voting state specific, or obligatory, members and at-large members to the regional fishery management councils. On the Secretary’s behalf, the NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator for Fisheries solicits nominations from governors and facilitates the annual appointments process. The appointments process begins each year in mid-January with nominations due from governors by March 15.”

Council meetings are held about five times a year throughout the region, in order to give folks who cannot travel to every meeting an opportunity to attend one in person in their home state. Meetings are open to the public, and anyone can go. On top of this, each meeting is streamed live on the councils’ websites, and council meeting preview blogs and/or the council meeting summary press releases are available to those who were unable to attend or watch the meeting. Whichever option one chooses, every person has the opportunity to stay up-to-date on what the council is doing. Additionally, councils usually have a very generous period in which the public can submit comments on different actions and amendments long before final decisions are made. Comments can be submitted in person, online, or via snail-mail.

To supplement council meetings, the council also holds numerous local scoping meetings in areas that will be specifically affected by an upcoming decision. This allows folks who may not be involved in the council process to learn about what is going on in their specific fishery, giving them the opportunity to comment and help them make a decision that is best for their fishery as a whole. Generally, anyone who is on his or her local council’s email list is notified with plenty of advance notice. Additionally, those holding federal fishing permits are sent letters asking them to comment on issues that directly affect the fishery associated with their specific permit.

In my past experiences, I have found that many fishermen have never heard of their local council, and many who have heard about the council have nothing good to say of it. There needs to be more effort not only by the council itself, but also the community to make sure fellow fishermen are involved. Bring someone to the meetings with you, or simply educate someone who may not know much about the council on how to stay up-to-date using their email or mailing list. The councils are only successful when everyone is at the table, and that cannot happen if folks either don’t know about the council or refuse to go to meetings because they don’t think their voice will be heard. So long as these folks don’t show up, or don’t at least submit public comments on contentious issues, then they will continue to find disappointment in the council process.

Though not even close to perfect, the current system in place is the best method for every sector of the fishery to be involved in the future of their natural resources. The only way to have a successful fishery management system is to use state resources, federal resources, ideas from recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, scientists, and even chefs and consumers. Views of dissent are much more important and motivational to the councils than silence. Anyone in the community who cares about the future of his or her fisheries has a legitimate opportunity to shape the future of how our public natural resources are managed.

Thanks to countless meetings, public comments, lawsuits, and other great efforts by the community, there are more than 40 fisheries that were once considered to be near-collapse that are now considered “rebuilt” as per standards set in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. As we speak, over 50 more fisheries in American waters are on their way to a stock status of rebuilt. However, the process of rebuilding a stock is often frustrating to all involved. Some fish species are known to have a maximum spawning potential at 10 or more years old, making the over-harvest of juveniles potentially dangerous to the success of the stock. This is often a subject of passion amongst many, who recognize this over-abundance of fish while they still are subject to strict regulations.

My advice to these folks is to have patience. This is not the answer most want to hear, but it is important to remember. We are planting trees now for our children to use for shade tomorrow. Conservation takes time, and we must keep in mind the ultimate goals, which are first allowing the fishery to become as healthy as it once was and is meant to be ecologically, and second leaving a resource for our children better than how we had it. Just because a fishery is healthier than it was 10 years ago does not mean it is where in needs to be. As time goes on, science gets better, data collection methods improve, and mistakes are made and corrected. However, we must not be premature in taking full advantage of a fishery. As a recreational fisherman myself, I know I would much prefer to stay limited, only to give my children the opportunity in a decade to enjoy a fishery in full health, knowing that I did my part to ensure that generations after me are able to enjoy the fruit of my labor.

Get involved in the council process. Give public testimony when you can, either in person or on a piece of paper. We need you, the recreational fisherman that catches croakers from the bank; the parent who wants to give his or her kids a nutritious seafood meal; the chef who strives to highlight his or her region through robust seafood options; the environmentalist who thinks we should not be fishing unsustainably. We need you to give your input on the future of our nation’s fisheries, on YOUR public resource. Understand how the council works, and rather than criticize the process, criticize (or praise) their decisions to the council members themselves. Only then will we have a comprehensive fishery management plan of the people, by the people, and for the people.

About Derek Breaux

Derek earned his Bachelor's degree in Earth and Environmental Science from the University of New Orleans in May of 2016 and worked as a Gulf Fish Forever campaign organizer at the Gulf Restoration Network until April 2017. He spends his free time fishing the banks of South Louisiana.

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