Number 8
August 27, 1997
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Is “managing fishing” the same as “managing fish?”

In the last decade or so we’ve become adept at managing fishing effort, at least commercial fishing effort. As we’ve discussed in previous editions of FishNet, commercial fishermen are told in which fisheries they can fish, when they can fish, how they can fish, what gear they can use, how many fish of what size they can catch, what they can’t catch, and where and in what form they can sell what they do catch. Disregarding these management measures results in fines commonly amounting to tens of thousands and ranging up to millions of dollars and may even result in permanent expulsion from commercial fishing. Needless to say, industry members take management imposed restrictions very seriously and total landings in virtually every commercial fishery have dropped significantly in recent years.

However, in spite of increasingly restrictive commercial regulations and in the face of severely reduced commercial harvest levels, the conventional wisdom is that in most of our fisheries things are getting worse and that in the remainder improvement isn’t happening rapidly enough. According to the “blame it on overfishing” philosophy clung to by the management establishment and generally embraced by the mass media and the environmental community, as we are getting better at managing fishing we are getting worse at managing fisheries. Predictably, this results in pressure for even more stringent regulations. But is this the appropriate response? If fishing mortality is among the dominant factors influencing the abundance of a particular species then it definitely is. But what if fishing mortality is insignificant in comparison to other factors impacting on a fishery? Consider the following:

  One might easily imagine any of these phenomena having dramatic impacts on fish or shellfish availability. And the listing certainly isn’t exhaustive. How about the effects of El Nino? The “killer” dinoflagellate Pfiesteria (check the North Carolina State University "Pfiesteria" websiteLink to North Carolina State University Pfiesteria website]? Ocean temperature increases altering migratory patterns or reproductive cycles? Inter-species competition? There’s a lot going on in our oceans and estuaries that could easily have as much or more impact on the abundance of particular species as fishing, but discussions of fishery management never seem to get beyond the effects of fishing and how to reduce them. Why?

In The Evolution of National Wildlife Law6 Michael Bean goes back to feudal Europe. Drawing from Blackstone’s Commentaries, Mr. Bean makes the point early in his report that the purpose of game regulation in feudal Europe was to keep the kings and barons in their castles and the peasants (Blackstone’s “rustici”) in their hovels. The focus was obviously on controlling fishing and hunting activities and the objective was to manage the fishermen and hunters, not the fish, not the game and not the habitat that supported them. Since then, while we’ve gotten away from the concept of maintaining the political status quo by restricting hunting or fishing privileges, we still heartily embrace the tradition of managing fishermen and hunters. Maybe we embrace it too heartily.

There is a full spectrum of factors, both anthropogenic and natural, that interact to determine the abundance of particular species of fish or shellfish in particular areas at particular times. Among the most obvious are water quality, habitat availability, predation mortality, fishing mortality, prey availability, spawning success, water temperature, currents, competition from other species, diseases and parasites. The only one of these capable of control by fisheries managers is fishing. It shouldn’t be any surprise, therefore, to see the almost total reliance by today’s fisheries managers on controlling fishing. There isn’t really much else they can control. But what is the overall impact of their understandably constrained focus on fishing mortality?

Fisheries in which fishing mortality is a critical or a major factor unquestionably need some level of fishing control. The fish, the harvesters and, ultimately, the consumers will benefit from an investment in sustainably managing these fisheries. In fisheries in which fishing mortality plays a minor or insignificant part, however, controlling fishing will be at best an exercise in futility and at worst an expensive diversion, drawing much-needed attention away from the actual causes of stock declines.

If we accept the fact that at this point (recent amendments to the Magnuson - Stevens Act should give greater prominence to critical habitat issues in the future) our management system can only deal effectively with controlling fishing mortality, what should we be doing differently? Determining the relative impact of both recreational and commercial fishing on each fishery being managed would be a logical starting point. This would allow us to commit our limited management resources to those fisheries where they would do the most good. It would also focus some much needed attention on those non-fishing impacts, only a few of which are detailed above, that have almost completely escaped public scrutiny up until now.

1 Restore America's Estuaries site. 
2 Joby Warrick and Pat Stith, Boss Hog 1, February 19, 1995. 
3 Price Waterhouse, National Recreational Boating Survey - Final Report, June 30, 1992 
4 Blue Water Network site. 
5 Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Mysterious New Diseases Devastate Coral Reefs, August 19, 1997. 
6 by the Environmental Law Institute for the Council on Environmental Quality, GPO Stock# 041-011-00033-5, 1977 
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