Finding a Balance Between Economy and Ecosystem
James O’malley

Presented at The History, Status and Future of the New England Offshore Fishery
April 16 - 17
Connecticut College

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Jim O'Malley, member of the New England Fisheries Management Council and Executive Director of the East Coast Fisheries Federation, has been involved in fisheries issues at the national and international level from the pre-Magnuson era. In this presentation he reflects on what is becoming a growing concern among industry members, responsible scientists and managers; the misuse of information to demonize the commercial fishing industry.

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The History, Status and Future of the New England Offshore Fishery

April 16-17, 1999

Connecticut College

Finding a Balance Between Economy and Ecosystem   

I should tell you first that I am a representative of commercial fishermen, and their advocate. The Federation membership is centered in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and we fish everywhere from Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras and even the Gulf of Mexico. The vessels in the organization are both “wetfish” boats, bringing in fresh fish every few days, as well as factory trawlers that freeze fish aboard. Most are in the range of 60-90 feet long, owner-operated, with crews of five or six.  That information may help you understand some of my remarks and attitudes.

Before we begin to talk about fish though, I think we should talk for a moment about words--how they’re used, what information they convey, and what impressions they create.

If, for example, I were running for public office, and I were to tell you that I am a staunch advocate and supporter of mass transit and improved public transportation, you would, more than likely, associate a package of political positions with that, ones that can normally be found with that kind of a statement. It’s usually a position held by those who call themselves liberals, and it would be natural to make certain assumptions about my positions on taxes, choice, the environment, et cetera.

But, if instead of saying “a supporter of improved public transportation,” I were to tell you that “I was going to make the trains run on time,” a very different vision would come to mind--that of Il Duce, dictatorship, totalitarianism, oppression.

These automatic associations betray a type of prejudice, not in the hateful sense of the word, but rather, just the fact that words can trigger a series of thoughts and impressions and associations that may not be borne out by careful investigation.

So the words we choose are important. And I would like to thank the organizers of this event for providing me with such a perfect prop: the conference brochure.

First of all, we find the statement that “nearly 70% of commercial fish species are fully exploited or in serious trouble,” an oft-repeated statistic provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But not quite. Words and numbers have been chosen and selected and formed together to persuade you to a particular belief.

What the FAO actually says is that 44% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, 15% are overfished, 6% are depleted, and 3% are recovering. Certainly, the fact that 6% are depleted is not a desirable situation, and the same is true for the 15% that are overfished. The 3% “recovering” indicates that the situation, while bad, is at least improving.

Now let us examine the 44% described as “fully exploited.” I can perform a daring exploit, I can exploit an opportunity, or I can exploit another human being. Each of those uses of the word ‘exploit’ carries a dramatically different connotation. One is positive, one is neutral, and one is profoundly negative. Which one is intended here?

These fisheries could be described instead as being “at peak production.” That means the same thing as “fully exploited.” But that different choice of words would convey a very different message to you. Those fisheries are, in fact, producing the maximum amount of food and commerce that they can. If you do not believe that this is a particularly bad thing, then suddenly, the overfishing problem is 21% or perhaps 24%. And “depleted” and “overfished” describe varying degrees of a fishery being in trouble--from taking a bit more than perhaps you should, to imminent biological or economic disaster.

So if you thought that 70% of the world’s fisheries are nearing collapse, you were led to that conclusion by someone’s choice of words, and your interpretation of those words. We all do that, and it is not unusual and it’s not usually meant to be deceptive. But the audience, you, must be critical and thoughtful, and listen carefully.

Further on in the brochure, we are told that fishermen are able to “efficiently harvest ever greater proportions of fish populations.” That, we must assume by context, is a dreadful thing. But is it? Should we not be asking simply, are they taking too many fish? Or are they doing something else that we do not want to have happen? Is “efficiently harvest” a danger sign or a laudable production standard? You can make that decision yourselves. All I ask is that you think about the words and the messages they convey.

But I am not done with the brochure yet. Later on in this splendid brochure, which saved me so much work preparing a text, we find one speaker’s remarks categorized as an “industry perspective,” and another as an “NGO perspective.” NGO, a non-governmental organization. That’s funny. I work for an organization, and it’s not governmental. And in fact, when I go to international fisheries meetings, I am put in exactly and precisely the same category as environmentalists. But I ask you to look inside your own minds and hearts for a moment. Did you associate, without even realizing it, some negative connotations with the expression, “industry perspective,” while immediately filing “NGO” under “good guy?” You might be right, either in general or in this particular case. But regardless, if you made any of those associations automatically and uncritically, you certainly might wish to examine your own thought processes for some tendency to be “prejudiced,” and your vulnerability to having that prejudice manipulated.

And although the brochure did provide a few additional opportunities, I will content myself with only one more: the title “Finding a Balance between Economy and Ecosystem.” Curiously enough, the word “find” derives from the word for “sea,” pontos. “Balance” means “two plates”-- a scale; “economy” means “household management,” and “ecosystem” derives from words meaning “household” and “order.” The notion that these things, economy and ecosystem, are somehow opposed, fighting with each other, and need to have some conflict resolved, is inherently false. They are, in fact, nearly the same: household management and household order.  And if you thought that I was going to speak about some desperate struggle between making money and protecting the environment and the fisheries, I am pleased to tell you that you will be disappointed.

My income next year depends on good fishery management strategy this year. Economy and ecosystem proceed together, and one will not be found without the other. Each must be fostered and protected, if we are going to have an abundant and productive ocean, and all the things that we hope go along with that--the food, the pleasure, the commerce, the quality of life.

Where there are disputes, by and large, they tend to be about how that management is effected, and especially who benefits the most, or is called upon to make the larger sacrifice. That is what allocation battles are about.

There are, of course, conflicts about what information is used, and on what science and politics that management is based. There are especially battles about what works on paper and what works in the ocean. They are all too seldom the same. Regulations which promote discards--and there are far too many of them-- are the most infuriating. The failure to find management strategies which minimize waste is probably our greatest frustration, fisherman and fisheries manager alike.

There is also a deep resentment that simple and sensible things cannot be done, and that the management system does not respond to the daily observations and the professional judgment of the people who are in the business, the people who are out there all the time, the people whose future depends on that resource, and whose future may be “in the balance.”

I cannot tell you how many times the commercial fishing industry has attempted to alert the managers to a problem, and asked for some simple action to prevent or mitigate that problem. In 1989, commercial fishermen discovered a huge body of juvenile yellowtail flounder off the coast not far from here, in an area that was due to open in its normal, annual cycle. They begged the regulators to keep that fishing ground closed. Because it was very obvious, fishing on the edge of that area, that there were too many small fish. They took government biologists out to the area, they wrote letters, went to hearings--to no avail. The area opened, it was legal to fish there, and people did it. Like all human beings, we are not inclined to overlook a perfectly legal opportunity, especially when self-restraint only means that someone else will benefit.

I began pleading with the managers for protection for monkfish in 1992. It’s an extraordinarily ugly little creature, but very valuable. Despite the focus on groundfish, monkfish is the most valuable finfish resource on the East Coast of the United States. It is more valuable than cod and haddock combined, more valuable than bluefin tuna. Some basic protections will go in this year, seven years after fishermen began sounding the alarm.

A few years ago, when the fishery managers were overwhelmed-- politically, legally, and biologically--  with the issue of groundfish on Georges Bank, a dislocated industry seriously depleted several other species which were not regulated or protected at all. This occurred despite pleas from fishermen for fundamental, even stopgap, conservation measures to protect those other species. We were not permitted to put in rules as basic as minimum sizes until the mathematicians had completed their estimates and calculations, because the solutions had to work on paper, regardless of what needed to be done in the ocean. The data wasn’t there, the managers were distracted, and resources were harmed badly.

What the fishermen said in all these cases was dismissed out of hand, because it was not  “scientific,” but merely “anecdotal.” And the irony hidden in language here is remarkable. “Anecdotal” is derived from anekdotos, meaning “not given out,” or “not published.” It does not mean unreliable; it certainly does not mean unscientific, if you realize that the word “science” itself comes not from any allusion to calculation, but simply, “knowledge.” I apologize to those of you who may have heard me say the exact same thing before--it bears repeating.

We need to develop ways to incorporate, into both our science and management, the empirical data and the millions of observations made by the people who are on the water every day. If there is a conflict to be resolved, a balance to be struck, it is not between economy and ecosystem. It is between what works on paper and what works on the ocean.

There is, as well, one other place where some rebalancing is very badly needed. The reason for that will surprise you. Politicians like to take opportunities like this to make one disturbing pronouncement, so that they can say something memorable and get people’s attention, and perhaps get some press coverage.

The fact is, the promises of the Sustainable Fisheries Act will never be kept. It is an illusion fostered by political interests to avoid taking responsibility. That is my pronouncement today, and I stand by it.

How could this be? The Act was passed with great hopes and expectations, conjuring up a vision of bounty for all.

But that is not the way the ocean works. Throughout the history of the industry, fishermen have flowed with the rhythms of the sea. That is what sustained them, biologically and economically. They caught large volumes of abundant fish for low prices, and at the same time,  a few scarce fish for very high prices.

No more. The Sustainable Fisheries Act, in effect, says that scarce fish must be left completely alone so that the stock will be rebuilt in the shortest possible time. Simultaneously, abundant species must be husbanded over a period of years to maintain biomass at “sustainable” levels. The cruel hoax lies in a combination of politics and mathematics.

The Act mandates that the fisheries be maintained at a level which can continually produce maximum sustainable yield. But because ecosystems and interrelationships are poorly understood, each individual species has been analyzed, and regulations passed which attempt to accomplish this maximum for each species. But appealing to the mathematicians among you, I have to ask if it is possible to maximize any equation for multiple variables simultaneously. Can you have an ocean full of every kind of fish at the same time? Of course not. This too, is something I have said before and will say again.

What all this means together, the Sustainable Fisheries Act and the cycles of the ocean, is that supply and demand will no longer work for fishermen or for the fishing industry. High abundance will not mean high productivity. And the economic rewards of scarcity-- high prices-- will go unrealized and become meaningless.

That, I believe, puts the task of “finding the balance” squarely back in the hands of society and its elected officials. Society has put abundance ahead of productivity. That is a decision that society, of course, is free to make. But we are seeing the results of that decision in the newspapers, and on the faces of those we are asking to shoulder the entire burden for a societal decision.

The fact is that there has been far more energy and money spent arguing about the problem than it would take to fix it. I refer, of course, to a one-time expenditure of about $200 million to buy out half the fleet both in New England and in the Mid-Atlantic. We must not allow ourselves to be duped into thinking that the ocean’s soon-to-be abundance will result in a productivity which will sustain a thriving fleet at its present size. That is the political hoax and the mathematical swindle. The rhythms of the ocean will not be legislated into perpetual, perfect stability.

And here, we come back to words and their power. It is time to put aside the convenient, demonizing labels. Fishermen plundering the resource. Trawlers destroying everything in their path, leaving a barren moonscape. Monster vessels scooping up the bounty of the sea. That rhetoric may be useful for getting media attention, or for fund-raising, but it does not accomplish much, and its inaccuracy means that time must be spent in rebuttal, rather than working to cure the problem. That kind of rhetoric is neither honest nor scientific, and is always accompanied by a political agenda.

If we want an abundant ocean, and are willing to forego some of its productivity to achieve that; if we want marine protected areas; more fish for recreation; or for aesthetic enjoyment, we need to solve the problem. Fishing, frankly, isn’t much fun anymore, and is making a painful transition from a lifestyle to a business. Lifestyle is no longer an issue. It’s just business. And being just business, it can be addressed by money. And incidentally, whether that business will be controlled by agribusiness interests is another issue for another conference.

But in the meantime, realize that the problem is really rather simple. A fleet was bloated by the tax policies of the 1980’s, when vessels were built to take advantage of the Investment Tax Credit and accelerated depreciation, not because they were good business decisions, not because those vessels were intended to make money. In 1984, the World Court decision assigned the most productive part of Georges Bank to Canada, pushing the fleet westward onto constricted grounds. And now, in the Sustainable Fisheries Act, the laws of supply and demand have been revoked.

The industry has been forced to shoulder its share of the burden for these things. Enormous revenues have been lost, many people have left, and many more will go. Now it is time for society in general, the taxpayer, to stop demonizing and labeling and shirking its responsibility, and pay for the remaining share-- the balance, if you will-- of the cost of getting what it wants. $200 million dollars is the cheapest way out of this mess. Otherwise, we will simply continue in this morass forever and ever.

So those are the two things that I think are in need of “balance.” The knowledge of fishermen must take its place beside the mathematics of the managers in the way we care for the ocean. And half the fleet needs to be retired by a willing public.

If I did not address the issues you thought I would, I apologize. But I cannot bring myself to describe a conflict between economy and ecosystem, because there is none. But there are certainly things which need to be brought into balance.

Thank you.

James D. O’Malley  


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