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March 13, 2013

Who's to Blame for the Northeast Management Chaos?

Constructive vigilance is critical in a tottering management approach.

As 2012 closed out, this column took a look at our current federal fisheries model and wondered out loud if Congress had a brilliant idea in 1976 when it first passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act or if the concept was doomed from the beginning. Self-governance has been the foundation of this country, but can the same concept work for marine natural resources? Some think it does not. For them, the fox is not only guarding the henhouse; he is systematically demolishing it. 

The thing that precipitated this anti-MSA outburst was the declared “disaster” in the New England groundfish fishery. Surprisingly, this thinking has come from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which has been a thoughtful supporter of the implementation of a version of catch shares for many of the Northeast fishermen. As Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations go, they have been a helpful part of the process, not just litigious bomb-throwers. So while this outburst may be surprising, it is also worth some real thought. Maybe it will move the process down the road to a better place.

Their concern is summed up by the following: “The federal fishery management system in this country is a unique exercise in natural-resource management. No one could ever imagine forest management plans being forced on federal experts by forestry companies. No one could imagine turning the planning of the future of this country’s vast range-lands over to cattlemen. And few people would argue that the oil and gas industry should be in charge of planning decisions about oil and gas development on public lands. And yet, in fisheries ­management, that’s what Congress has done by turning the health and prosperity of this nation’s once-abundant fish resources over to the fishermen and their representatives in state fishery agencies. The fishery-council management system may have been a ‘noble experiment,’ but it has been an abject failure for the groundfish and for fishermen of New England.”

Wow! If one has been involved at all in the process, that has to make you think about where we are in fisheries management. In the imaginary “perfect world,” what would we do? Most countries simply put the authority in the hands of bureaucrats, but would that be any better? CLF does not think so. 

“Who is to blame for this management chaos? The New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service. If we were talking about a private corporation, these managers would have been fired decades ago, and then fired again and again until they started to perform by growing biomass, increasing profitability, and improving access to the healthy fish stocks across the region. What kind of business can expect to stay in business by running through its inventory faster than it can replace it?”

From my perspective, this begins to peel back a few layers of the onion and get at some of the questions that need to be answered. At the heart of this management system is a public-trust resource that belongs to all the citizens, some might say of the Earth, but we’ll just keep it to the USA. Some decisions have to be made as to what those who “own” the resource get for allowing someone to profit from that resource. With ­energy, mineral and timber resources, the government extracts some level of rent for those getting the resources. Secondly, there needs to be some sort of dialogue on whether the fisheries will be self-sustaining or will need and demand constant subsidies from the government. If we want to have fisheries that serve the small coastal communities and require some level of support, then let’s say that. If we want a self-sustaining fishery with fewer and larger participants that could be more efficiently managed, then let’s say that. Being all things to all users has its drawbacks, and the current level of failure is evidence of that.

Back to the concept of the Council management system being an abject failure. No matter what I think about that possibility, what would work better and allow the level of participation by the diverse user groups? It has always been my feeling that it is very easy to be ­critical, and a lot harder to be constructive. The only alternative that seems possible is one that concerns CLF and most of us who actually think about it. 

CLF’s concern goes right down to the individual managers. “There is no accountability for this crowd: not in producing and maintaining healthy fish populations, and not in producing prosperous regional fishing businesses. State fishery directors and council members publicly wring their hands, point their fingers at just about everybody except themselves, commit to doing better on the next amendment, and then just go on doing the same lousy job.”

A few more layers get peeled back with that comment. From my perspective, no one entity is blameless and no one entity is totally to blame. Until the managers and resources users all embrace that concept, the management process will continue to stagger along. As the 113th Congress debates some of the potential changes to MSA, we had better be involved in the process or we will likely get something we really don’t like.