Congress, Catch Shares, and the Councils

Photo credit: Ben Martens

Nick Battista is Marine Programs Director at the Island Institute. Ben Martens is Executive Director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

The fisheries of our country are diverse and each face unique challenges depending on gear, geography, history, ecosystem and industry needs. The herring fishery of New England is going to require a different set of regulations than the grouper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico and asking them to operate the same way makes no sense. Through the Magnuson–Stevens Act of 1976, a regionally-based fisheries council system was set up to address the mosaic of regulatory adjustments that each fishery needs, and allow for the governance of our fisheries through participation by knowledgeable people with a stake in fisheries management.  The goal of these councils is to get the maximum sustainable yield from our fishery resources, and part of their mission is to rebuild our struggling fish stocks in the process.  This is a significant undertaking and requires the ability to use a full suite of management tools.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives held a spirited debate and ultimately voted for an appropriations rider that makes it harder to achieve this important goal.  The rider prohibits NOAA, NMFS and the councils from developing new catch shares management plans on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

While this debate was focused on catch shares as a means of management, which has been a lightning rod of controversy lately, the message it sends to the councils is far more concerning. If Representatives Frank (D-MA), Southerland (R-FL) and others are upset about how catch shares are being implemented in particular fisheries, the appropriate response should be to focus on addressing the issues in those specific fisheries and regions. Categorically prohibiting a powerful management tool, without regard or thought as to how it can be used effectively, hurts other coastal communities and puts all fisheries at risk of mismanagement. The appropriations amendment isn’t helping fishing communities; instead it is gutting the councils’ ability to regulate effectively.

Representatives Frank and Southerland argued that this amendment was necessary, in part because the council process doesn’t actually represent fishermen. Much like Congress, the councils are representative bodies and while the council process is neither perfect nor inclusive of all fishing voices, the councils encourage active engagement from the public and were set up to ensure that fishing perspectives were heard and understood. More importantly, the councils are the appropriate bodies to make decisions about what management tool works best for each fishery and should not be handcuffed by Congress. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) got it right when she responded to Representative Frank by saying “it’s critical for coastal communities and working waterfronts that fishermen are allowed to utilize the best management tools for their particular fishery. Catch shares may not be the best option for every fishery, but that decision should be left to the industry, the management experts and the scientists in their region where the fishery occurs.”

If there are problems with representation on a council, or improvements to be made in the council process, it is appropriate for Congress to address and fix these issues. This is not what Congress has done thus far. Instead they are being influenced by the efforts of a small minority to do an end run around the council process and have taken a hatchet to an issue that needed a scalpel to fix. Defunding a fisheries management tool and prohibiting the councils from using it because some members of Congress are not pleased is not respectful to the hard work and public participation occurring at the various regional councils.

If the problem is with the goals and values councils have utilized in implementing catch shares, Congress should work to refine the national standards in Magnuson–Stevens to provide more direction to the councils to ensure the goal-setting process is appropriately inclusive. Taking fishery regulation development away from the councils, and having Congress make management decisions, deprives fishermen who don’t have the ear of their member of Congress a chance to interact with the process. In addition, this shift forces complicated issues, such as catch shares, to be addressed in a generalized fashion when specificity in regulations is the key to the long-term success of U.S. fisheries.

The regional process of fisheries management allows for better access and input from the fishermen who cannot afford a high-priced lobbyist or a trip to D.C. to lobby their member of Congress.  A Congressman from Kansas has little or no expertise, nor any constituents, who are directly impacted by fisheries management decisions, and asking them to weigh in on specific fisheries issues would be a step back for the fishing community as a whole.

Congress is not the right body to be making these decisions. Fisheries managers, scientists and the fishing industry – the people with regional knowledge and responsibility for ensuring that fisheries are rebuilt and management plans comply with Magnuson-Stevens – should be the ones making decisions about what tools will work best for managing fisheries in their regions. Just as saying all fisheries should be managed the same way is completely inappropriate, a prohibition on a single category of management is just as bad. We should respect the diversity of our fisheries and allow decisions to be made by the councils after careful deliberation and significant public input.

Nick Battista Nick Battista is Marine Programs Director at the Island Institute.


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