Murky Waters Make for Poor Fishing
Ivy Fredrickson is a Staff Attorney for Conservation Programs at Ocean Conservancy.
Every year, fishery managers are making decisions about how to manage fish populations in federal waters, and they rely on input from fishermen, scientists, community groups and others to help make choices. Information gathered on the water about what fish are caught, where they are caught, and interactions with other ocean wildlife is essential for the public to understand how fish populations are being managed and how those decisions affect ocean ecosystems. Access to this information is necessary for everyone, including fishermen, to participate effectively in the management process, and to ensure that our fisheries are managed responsibly and sustainably for the benefit of present and future generations.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has proposed a long-awaited rule regarding confidentiality of information under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Unfortunately, it would unnecessarily stifle public participation in the management of public trust ocean resources, including depleted fish populations and protected species. The proposed rule would take the unprecedented and unwarranted leap from protecting personal privacies to withholding basic required information.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the public can access fishery observer data from the government as long as personal information like names and fishing locations is obscured. As currently written, the proposed rule could make nearly all essential fisheries data inaccessible to the public, and would prohibit access to critical information that forms the fundamental basis for fishery management decisions.
Our nation’s ocean wildlife and fish are public trust resources managed on all of our behalf by NMFS. These resources belong to the American public, and the entire nation has a stake in the jobs and revenues generated from them. U.S.fish populations alone support hundreds of thousands of jobs in the tourism, fishing and seafood industries. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commercial and recreational fishing generates $183 billion per year for the U.S. economy and supports more than 1.5 million full and part-time jobs.
Moreover, millions of taxpayer dollars are invested each year in fisheries management including the collection of data by professional observers on fishing vessels. As recently noted by the Sunlight Foundation, this rule change would restrict access to information from publicly-funded fisheries observer programs, which are funded to the tune of some $40 million each year.
To make matters worse, NMFS is undertaking this rulemaking process without offering any clarity on what and how information will be aggregated. Under existing law, otherwise confidential information may be “aggregated or summarized” for release to the public. Yet this proposed rule fails to propose how the newly confidential information will be aggregated or summarized in the future. In the past, this lack of clarity coupled with inconsistencies in the handling of data from region to region has led to unnecessary delays and decisions made with incomplete information. NMFS needs to provide guidance on aggregation along with the proposed rule on confidentiality.
NMFS should withdraw this flawed proposal entirely and replace it with one that ensures public access to fisheries information. The desire to streamline the federal fisheries data processing system is laudable but the rule presents an unjustified expanded cloak of secrecy that could undermine transparency and stifle public participation. A new proposal must preserve transparency, participation and collaboration so that researchers, scientists and members of the public can contribute to the successful management of our nation’s publicly owned ocean resources.New England is facing a fisheries disaster right now. This isn’t the time to be making information less accessible.