The “Why” of Managing Fisheries


Top Photo: Atlantic Herring

Fisheries management is often viewed as a scientific discipline, but science is only one aspect of the management process. Before biologists can determine how a fishery ought to be managed, they need to understand the politics and policies that determine why management measures are needed.

These days, we often think of fishery management in terms of conservation. However, while federal fishery managers have certainly ended overharvest in many fisheries, and have successfully rebuilt a number of once-overfished stocks, they have done so only because such actions were mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. If that law was worded differently, as it was prior to 1996, conservation concerns could easily be subordinated to economic considerations, as they were under the original Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976.

At one time, scientists didn’t believe that saltwater fisheries needed to be managed at all. In 1883, Professor Thomas Henry Huxley made the opening speech at the London Fisheries Exhibition, when he opined that

the sea which shuts us in, at the same time opens up its supplies of food of almost unlimited extent…

Are fisheries exhaustible? That is to say, can all the fish that naturally inhabit a given area be extirpated by the agency of man?

…A salmon fishery then (and the same applies to all river fisheries) can be extirpated by man because man is, under ordinary circumstances, one of the chief agents of destruction, and, for the same reason, its exhaustion can usually be prevented, because man’s operations may be controlled and reduced to any extent that may be desired by force of law.

And now arises the question, Does the same reasoning apply to the sea fisheries? Are there any sea fisheries that are exhaustible, and, if so, are the circumstances of the case such that they can be efficiently protected? I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of our most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible. And I base this conclusion on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fisheries is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant, and secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fishermen cannot sensibly increase the death rate.” [emphasis added]

Huxley’s words may seem terribly naïve today, when cod stocks on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine have effectively collapsed, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that Atlantic herring are suffering from overfishing while Atlantic mackerel are overfished.

Yet Wilbur Ross, the current Secretary of Commerce, almost seemed to echo Huxley’s unjustified optimism at his confirmation hearing, when he expressed his belief that fish should be managed for maximum sustainable yield, and remarked that “Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter,” even though reaching such goal would require nearly a tenfold increase in U.S. seafood landings.

Such comments, along with his later decisions to override the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s finding that New Jersey regulations didn’t adequately protect summer flounder and to allow anglers to overfish red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, strongly suggest that the Secretary, like Professor Huxley, believes that fisheries should be exploited for the highest practicable yield.

The idea that fish stocks should be managed for the highest possible landings, and the economic benefits that such landings might bring, has persisted for a very long time. It has been distilled into the saying “Any fish that dies of old age is wasted.”

It took a very long time before managers began to realize that maintaining healthy and abundant stocks of fish was an inherently worthwhile goal, even without reference to food production or economic gain. Even today, some veteran scientists, who usually have close ties to the fishing industry, still view maximized landings as the holy grail of fishery management.

Thus, when Dr. Brian J. Rothschild, a respected marine biologist from the University of Massachusetts, testified before Congress in 2010, he complained of fishery regulations leading to “underfishing” in New England waters.

It is generally not realized that fishery management in New England over the last several years has limited landings to [approximately] 25% of the scientifically allowable catch. This amounts to a 75% waste of the resource amounting to an ex-vessel…loss at the dock of $300-400 million per year…It is important to recognize that the underfishing statistics are very difficult to interpret. (For example, the Gulf of Maine cod [total allowable catch] in 2007 was 10,000 tons. The landings amounted to only 4,000 tons. In other words, 6,000 tons of cod disappeared. The 6,000 tons were either not caught, discarded, or not reported.) [emphasis added]

To understand such train of thought, it is important to note that Dr. Rothschild’s deemed New England groundfish to be “wasted” solely because they were not landed, despite their continued contributions to the marine ecosystem; similarly, the 6,000 tons of cod that might have been, but ultimately were not, landed “disappeared,” despite the high likelihood that most of them remained in the ocean, where they augmented the spawning population of what was already an overfished stock.

In recent years, such a utilitarian philosophy of fishery management has begun to yield to broader management approaches, which consider species’ role in the marine ecosystem, non-consumptive uses of marine resources, and similar factors besides mere landings. Such modern approach to marine resource management is well expressed in the mission statement of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division, which states

The Mission of the Division of Marine Resources is to manage and maintain the state’s living marine, estuarine and anadromous resources, and to protect and enhance the habitat upon which these resources depend, in order to assure that diverse and self-sustaining populations of these resources are available for future generations.

Consistent with such stewardship, and in recognition of the intrinsic value of productive marine ecosystems, the Division will manage the state’s marine, estuarine and anadromous resources to achieve optimum benefit by providing for the broadest range of uses including commercial and recreational harvest, human consumption, natural forage and observation and appreciation.

Optimizing benefit may include:

  • managing, restoring and enhancing indigenous marine, estuarine and anadromous species and their habitats,
  • regulating the harvest of these resources to optimize yield,
  • assuring that living marine, estuarine and anadromous resources available for harvest and public consumption meet public health guidelines,
  • providing enhanced public access to waters of the marine and coastal district, and
  • promoting public awareness of the value and benefits of diverse and productive marine, estuarine and anadromous resources and habitats and the function of resource management in securing such value and benefits.

Such a wholistic view of marine resource management places landings in context, as one factor among others that must be considered when making management decisions.

The mission statement’s recognition of “the intrinsic value of productive marine ecosystems” echoes pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold’s observation that “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?'”, for what is true of an individual ecosystem component is equally true of the ecosystem as a whole; managing for a productive marine ecosystem creates something that is good in itself, even if some management measures’ direct benefits to stakeholders are not immediately clear.

The mission statement recognizes that non-consumptive values, what it refers to as “observation and appreciation,” are also worthy of management consideration.

Most importantly, the mission statement emphasizes the future, and the need to pass down a legacy of diverse and self-sustaining stocks to generations yet to be born.

For that’s the true answer to the question “Why manage fish?”

We don’t do it just to maintain a steady flow of “product” to market. We don’t do it just to maintain income streams, or to put food on anglers’ tables. We do it because those who inherit this world are entitled to intact ecosystems filled with healthy and sustainable fish populations that will be fully able to support commercial and recreational fisheries for so long as folks wish to turn to the sea.

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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