Site by N.E. Stolpe

Management system failing fish and fishermen
Nils Stolpe
February, 1999 Commercial Fisheries News
(reprinted with permission)

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The commercial fishing industry - or at least that segment of it that I’m most familiar with - seems to be growing increasingly uncomfortable with the management system. And this is happening at a time when management is playing a steadily increasing day-to-day role in every business involved with harvesting in U.S. waters. Casual observers, people we seem to have had a vast over-sufficiency of in recent years, would probably explain this away as a  predictable reaction of an industry that for the first time is facing serious governmental regulation. But is that really the case?

There are fisheries which have been stringently controlled for decades. A good example is the lobster fishery. In spite of what seems to be a pretty heavy level of management, for the most part the industry and the managers seem able to work together fairly effectively for the good of the fishery - and the fishermen. The menhaden fishery is another example, as are the bay clam, sea clam and oyster fisheries. Each of these highly regulated fisheries has a long history of industry/management cooperation, of course, subject to the occasional friction points. With clams and oysters there’s also an added burden of "shellfish sanitation" regulations. In each the industry has invested heavily in participating in the management process and has received direct, tangible "profits" from that investment and the managers and the industry seem to be running on parallel and complimentary tracks. There is also a history of successful government/industry research collaboration or cooperation in each. 

But unfortunately, in many fisheries this is not the case. In these other fisheries, in fact, the managers and the harvesters seem to be growing farther and farther apart. Moreover, each year fishermen seem to be participating in the management system more and benefiting less - and "benefiting" here doesn’t necessarily translate to "catching more fish" but, equally importantly, also means "developing a more effective management system."

What might account for this growing estrangement? It would be hard to ignore the increasing bureaucratization of what started out as a complex administrative system. The paperwork for fisheries plans and plan amendments can easily amount to hundreds of printed pages, much of which might as well be written in San Scrit as far as the average fisherman - or industry rep - is concerned. The process through which the reams of paperwork is created and considered seems to go on interminably. Many of the meetings and hearings require overnight  travel, a significant expense. And, in spite of the industry often making credible arguments for other measures, the plan creation juggernaut will most likely keep chugging on in what far too often seems like a direction that has been pre-ordained from the beginning of the process. (An interesting exercise would be a national survey aimed at determining how many plans/amendments have been changed substantially due to public comment)

On top of this profusion of paperwork and meetings, the increasing prominence of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in management in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions must have a lot of people trying to decide "who’s on first." You know what I mean if you’ve sat through the Council/Commission shuffle at a Mid-Atlantic Commission… oops, Atlantic States Marine Management Council…. sorry, I’m still trying to get it straight. Anyway, that’s when most of the same people at the table vote on what are mostly, but not quite, the same questions dealing with some - but not all - fisheries a couple of times in succession for different bureaucratic bodies. It’s confusing, it smacks of bureaucratic overkill and, to those of us not brought up in or converted to the bureaucratic way of life, it’s certainly not an invitation to get seriously involved in the process.

What Industry Has To Say:

"The ordeal of creating the monkfish plan revealed all the warts in the management process. By the time we had a workable plan we were told that it was too late to do anything that wouldn’t economically devastate many of the people in the fishery. Considering what management is costing us, as taxpayers and as participants in the system, we have a right to expect a lot more." Kevin Wark, Barnegat Light, NJ gillnetter, Monkfish and Bluefish Advisor. 

"How can anyone realistically expect active fishermen or other businessmen to review and comment meaningfully on a swordfish plan that is 1098 pages long, while at the same time evaluating the impacts of other national and international management measures on swordfish, tunas, billfish and sharks on their businesses? Few people have the required time, background or resources and the managers have to start recognizing this."  Nelson Beideman, Blue Water Fishermen’s Association.

"In New Jersey over the years various people and organizations have become notorious to the commercial industry for appearing to be opposed to commercial harvesting. Unfortunately, these people have often been and still are officially designated by the State to represent all of New Jersey’s citizens - not just the recreational anglers  - in management deliberations." Jim Lovgren, Point Pleasant, NJ Dragger, President of Ocean County (NJ) Farm Bureau.

"After Judge Steven Merryday required the National Marine Fisheries Service to do another economic analysis during early 1998, the NMFS has now acknowledged the economic impacts to the directed shark highliners and others affected by the 50% Large Coastal Sharks commercial quota cut. Time will tell if the U.S. government will allow a little fairness back into this highly migratory species management regime's future actions and reactions." Russell "Rusty" Hudson, fisheries consultant.

Then we have what is becoming a chronic lack of response from the management establishment to the anti-commercial fishing media assaults that are increasing in frequency, in virulence, and in detachment from. With very few exceptions the managers, whether state or federal reality (note: at the State level this appears to be more of a concern in the Mid-Atlantic than in New England), have remained disappointingly remote and uninvolved, regardless of how untrue, exaggerated or distorted the attacks have been. With no contrary words from the people or the agencies that are in charge, it’s all too easy for anti-commercial efforts to appear credible, and increasingly, that’s how they’re appearing to the public. This is particularly troublesome as it applies to NMFS/NOAA, which has a formidable PR machine when it comes to issues like promoting the Year of the Oceans mediafest in California last year. When dealing with anti-commercial issues the National Marine Fisheries Service and its parent agency are usually there with "too little" and "too late." In too many instances the public posture of management agencies and/or personnel appears to be opposed to the interests of  the industry.

In the same vein, management decisions are often made with what seems to be absolutely no consideration given to their marketing impacts. With the increasing globalization of the fish business and the influx of imports, getting the highest possible price for domestic products is critical, yet management measures are often instituted that predictably drive prices down.

Finally, and most unfortunately, the industry is being forced to find relief from management measures by going around the management system. The courts, other governmental agencies and legislative bodies are increasingly being used by the industry, increasingly successfully, to "protect" it from unjustified management actions. This is obviously bad for everyone’s morale. It is also expensive in terms of both cash and human resources, and doesn’t necessarily result in "better" management.

But is it all "doom and gloom?" Not really. The scallop research effort in the closed areas on Georges Bank that was initiated by NMFS, the Fisheries Survival Fund and CMAST are at least an indication that cooperation is not only possible but highly desirable, providing a wealth of critical biological data at a "bargain basement" price. Likewise, the ability of industry advisors to craft, and the management system to consider, a whiting management regime that is acceptable to people in the fishery shows the system can work for everyone.

However, there’s still a long way to go. To allow effective public participation the system must be simplified. Proposed management measures - and alternatives - have to be presented to the business people who will be affected by them in a form that is understandable. A 1,000 page document has no place in a supposedly public process unless it is accompanied by a concise and understandable synopsis (remember, we’re not designing a lunar probe . Commercial Fisheries News does this as a matter of course. Why shouldn’t the involved agencies? Comment periods should be extended when appropriate, and managers should take a more active role in soliciting industry input. Marketing realities must be taken into account when management programs are designed, and every effort should be made to allow the industry to maximize its return on what it harvests.

And lastly, as a recent spate of judicial decisions have shown, there are many laws and regulations protecting small businesses in the U.S. These should be as integral a part of the management process as are those protecting fisheries resources, and the industry shouldn’t have to go to court to see that they are. 


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