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Flyfishing in Saltwaters, January/Feb 2007



How conflict-of-interest within the councils has the potential to destroy our fisheries

By Capt. John McMurray


In writing this issue’s column I had initially set out to pen a brief, easy to understand rundown of how the marine fisheries management systems works.  However, the title I came up with struck me as ironic and somewhat funny.  I thought perhaps I should use the title: Fisheries Management by Dummies, as opposed to Fisheries Management for Dummies, as the prior is a pretty accurate description of how our marine resources have been managed as of late (see last issue’s column).  But what can we expect when industry insiders have a big part in writing their own regulations. 


NOAA Fisheries, the federal bureaucracy in charge of fisheries management, conducts the scientific research on which all fisheries regulations are ostensibly based. While the law requires the agency to actually issue the regulations, such regulations are largely based on recommendations from the eight regional fishery management councils. . 


Each state belonging to a Council is guaranteed at least two seats, one going to its “fisheries professional” and another “obligatory” seat to a member of the private sector; in addition, there are “at large” seats that may be filled by private-sector representatives from any of the member states.  Governors of member states nominate each Council’s appointed members, who are supposed to be “knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management, or the commercial or recreational harvest, of the fishery resources of the geographic area concerned.”  The Secretary of Commerce then appoints the council members from the list of governors’ appointees.


Despite the fact that fish are a public resource, the overwhelming majority of nongovernmental members of the councils are fishing industry insiders: commercial fishermen, operators of charter boats, seafood processors, etc., thus they have a direct financial interest in the natural resource they are charged with conserving.


Of the New England Council’s 12 appointed members, eight are from the commercial sector, three are in the recreational fishing industry, and one is from and environmental group (the lone environmentalist in all eight councils).  Since members with a financial stake in the outcome of a vote will, far too often, strain all logic and ignore applicable science in an effort to maintain or even increase current fishing limits, the situation inevitably creates a fox-in-charge-of-the-hen-house scenario. 


Fishery management council members are subject to conflict-of-interest rules, but the standard is so lax that virtually no one is ever disqualified from a vote, and only rarely does one recuse himself.  Undoubtedly, most council members see themselves as representatives of specific special interests rather than the general public.  They take an oath to act for the good of the nation, but it defies human nature to willingly vote against the financial interests of family and friends. 


This perceived and real conflict of interest is only part of the problem.  Council members are also responsible for both conservation and allocation decisions.  Not only do they decide how many fish are caught, but also who can catch them.  Because larger catches are easier to divvy up among competing fishery interests, the councils’ allocation responsibilities all too often cause them to set fishery limits which are too high and undermine conservation.  In a rational world, the science should determine catch levels (how many fish can sustainably be taken from the sea) while the councils should determine how the catch is allocated. 


Since the passage of Sustainable Fishing Act in 1996 this has gotten somewhat better.  For the most part the science decides the quota and the council allocates it.  But, if there is some doubt about the science, the councils tend to pick the highest permissible number, but if they pick a harvest that is not sustainable, NOAA Fisheries won’t let it go. 


Prior to 1996 councils would consistently override scientific conclusions and set catch limits that were too high because the Magnuson Act required them to take into account the socioeconomic impacts on fishermen and the communities they support.  By law Councils could not use the science alone to make equitable decisions.  On the surface, this may seem like a rational rule, however, it had enabled shortsighted Councils to make irresponsible allocation and harvest decisions that have ruined many fisheries and the communities they support.  What happened to the cod fishing communities in New England is a darn good example.  After the 1996 socio-economic data may only be used to choose between two plans if both meet the recovery standards.


Both the Pew Oceans Commission and the Bush Administration’s US Commission on Ocean Policy reports make it very clear that the conflict-of-interest issues needed to be addressed if we are to ever have hope of maintaining wild fish stocks at sustainable levels, but so far nothing has been done.  The versions of the Magnuson Act reauthorization bills that were introduced in 2006 do not directly address the problems.   


We need a legislative fix, but aside from a lot of lip service, from Congress and the Bush administration nothing is in the works.  Politicians lack the political will to dismantle the culture of conflicts in the councils.  In part, this represents pandering to special interests comprising the fishing industry, but it also reflects the low priority many legislators place on fisheries issues.  People like to eat fish, but  they are not too interested in where they come from, or how many are left.  Fortunately, that seems to be changing with each front page news article that addresses the declining state of our oceans, and the most recent congressional election may turn the tide.  We may even see a version of the Magnuson Reauthorization that addresses the conflict of interest issues in 2007.   Let’s hope we do.