Just about every time that a size or bag limit, commercial quota, etc., has been put in place, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth. In recent years, the response has become worse.
This is mostly because after decades of political pressure to overfish, we are finally rebuilding the great majority of fish stocks, and there has been some real pain involved. As a result, there is growing unrest on not only the commercial side, but the recreational side as well. Simply put, some fishermen are getting frustrated by regulations preventing them from keeping as many fish as they would like. They wonder how government has the right (or nerve) to tell them how many fish they can catch, let alone where, when and how they can catch them. With the current anti-government sentiment infecting public discussion, such unrest has gained traction.
The fire has been fueled by various special-interest groups misleading the general fishing public and tempting them with visions of going back to the “good old days” of unregulated overfishing. The fact that most folks simply don’t understand the science, process or philosophy underlying the fisheries management procedure makes such disinformation campaigns all too effective.
Before moving forward, we should note that government must manage fisheries because of what the late ecologist Garrett Hardin coined the “tragedy of the commons.” When a resource is subject to unregulated access, people tend to overexploit it, without regard for its sustainability, as individuals who might otherwise seek to conserve or invest in the resource are placed at a competitive disadvantage by others without the foresight to manage it for the long term.
Making Sense of the Process
The government regulatory process may not be perfect, but it makes sense. The National Marine Fisheries Service manages fish in federal waters. Coastal states are responsible for waters within three miles of their coasts, nine miles off Florida’s west coast and Texas. Both federal and state resource agencies employ well-qualified people trained in the sciences of fishery biology, economics and natural resource management, who must estimate the amount of fish that can be removed without harming the fish population and without causing unnecessary harm to the fishing industry. Overly conservative management can result in unnecessarily restricting fishermen’s harvests and anglers’ access to a resource, while inadequate management measures may result in overharvesting, severely reduced fish populations and boats tied to the dock because there’s nothing to catch.
Pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which regulates federal management, eight regional fishery management councils, composed of fishermen, state fisheries managers and a NMFS representative, develop fishery management plans (FMPs) for the stocks in their region. The FMPs regulate all aspects of the fishery, including gear types, seasons, quotas and licensing schemes.
The Magnuson Act requires that FMPs end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks and maximize all stocks’ benefit to the nation through sustainable commercial and recreational fishing activities. By law, the regulatory process is open to the public, and fishermen are encouraged to participate to ensure that their interests are considered when regulations are created.
Understanding Magnuson Alterations
In 1996, Congress amended the Magnuson Act by passing the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which mandated rebuilding provisions and called for increased attention to the reduction of bycatch and the protection of habitat. Late in 2006, the Magnuson Act was reauthorized with strengthened conservation provisions, including a requirement that councils follow the advice of independent science and statistical committees, which ended the tendency of some councils to discount scientific recommendations if the resultant economic pain would be great. The reauthorization also required firm catch limits and accountability measures to discourage councils from always adopting the most risk-averse management measures. Painful as such revisions were, they are working. Since 2006, most federally managed stocks have been on an upward trend, and today most fall under the rebuilt or rebuilding category.
Historically, the commissions have had little regulatory power and functioned primarily as advisory bodies to the governors and legislatures of their states. Yet the passage of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act of 1993 gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages striped bass, red drum and weakfish, among others, the ability to enforce its management decisions.
Although the ASMFC’s adopted vision is “healthy, self-sustaining populations for all Atlantic Coast fish species or successful restoration well in progress by the year 2015,” it is not bound by the rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson Act. Unlike the councils, the ASMFC need not heed the advice of scientists when setting annual quotas or act to end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks. No accountability measures need be attached to the ASMFC’s management plans.
As a result, the ASMFC’s management plans can be heavily influenced by fishermen who want to exploit depleted stocks, and a few species have suffered as a result. For example, weakfish, American shad and winter flounder have collapsed while under the ASMFC’s management.
All this said, despite some problems, the current fisheries management structure works far better than anything that has been tried before. The biggest problems are related to the lack of adequate data and the need for reliable stock assessments in a number of fisheries, but even in those situations, there are folks working to implement a fix that doesn’t threaten the intent of the Magnuson Act.
Avoiding a Disappearing Act**
Yes, the rebuilding mandated by the Magnuson Act is painful, but it’s absolutely necessary if we want to maintain sound commercial and recreational fisheries. Unless the most extreme anti-regulatory zealots get their way, we will probably not go back to the days of inadequately regulated fishing. But if that happened, we could kiss rec-reational fishing goodbye. When the fish go away, most of the interest in fishing disappears as well.
The bottom line is that the current fisheries management system, despite some problems, has generally served anglers well. Reducing the government’s authority to regulate fishing, and its ability to prevent overfishing, would be a very bad idea. Yet if some groups get their way and the wrong decision makers get into office, that’s exactly what will happen.
Summer flounder, aka fluke, are a good example of our regulatory system’s success. There was a terrible outcry about 10 years ago, when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted a rebuilding plan that finally had a good chance of success. The stock has since increased fivefold, with more larger, older fish than anyone can remember. Just a few short years ago, very few fish survived more than two years due to intense fishing pressure. Of course, today there is a regulatory discard problem in the fishery (large size limits in most states lead to many throwbacks, and 10 percent of those die), but there are still more fish than ever, and that’s what ultimately matters. The stock, once badly depleted, is now fully rebuilt, and anglers are enjoying an extraordinary, albeit somewhat more restricted, fishery.