Sometimes the Way Forward is a Step Back

The most monumental events often start from the most humble beginnings. In December 2009, the Chair of the NEFMC, John Pappalardo, sent a personal letter to the Secretary of Commerce, venting his frustration over the state of affairs between the three key players in the New England fisheries management structure: the NEFMC, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC).

These three functions—planning, regulating, and science—touch the lives and interests of everyone interested in fishing and the marine ecosystem. If they are not working well and smoothly together, little can move forward. John put in writing what others knew but wouldn’t say: the system was still broken.

Mr. Pappalardo created the space for a serious discussion: making the management system worthy of the world-class marine resource it was managing and worthy of the hard-working people whose lives and ports depended on the legitimacy of the science, planning and regulation that kept it all together. His letter did not fall on deaf ears. Under the leadership of NOAA’s new head, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, and NMFS’s new head, Eric Schwaab, the federal agencies hired an independent third party to undertake extensive interviews to understand the regional management challenges.

Today, at the first day of the April 2011 Council meeting, Eric Schwaab announced the release of the first phase of this review. Based on 179 diverse interviews , the New England Fisheries Management Review is an impressive first step toward Mr. Pappalardo’s goal of achieving management excellence for New England fisheries.

A great number of positives were noted in the analysis, including the professional and dedicated staff in all three organizations, the high quality of the work and results that they are achieving, strong collaborative research with fishermen, and the transparency of the public decision-making process. At the same time, the report makes a number of detailed and critical observations about areas of redundancy, lack of clarity in responsibilities and strategic objectives, mistrust of data used for science, and perceptions of an anti-industry bias. No detail was too small, and suggestions were even advanced to serve coffee and other refreshments at Council meetings to improve the atmosphere in the room.

Adminstrator Schwaab publicly embraced the report with a spirit that one council member characterized as “enthusiasm.” He issued a release indicating that NMFS was immediately implementing a number of responsive changes, and he also referenced a new national report on improving fisheries science that complemented many of the Management Review recommendations.

From my perspective, this discussion was a long time in coming but momentous nevertheless. Meeting the challenges of restoring healthy fish populations and transitioning to a diverse and thriving New England fishing economy requires everyone’s best game. While many of the recommendations seem obvious now, their moment had not yet arrived in years gone by. The opportunity before the planners, the regulators, scientists, fishermen and the public is ours to lose.


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