National Policy

Now Here’s an Idea We Can All Get Behind

Rebuilding plans are currently only required to have a 50% probability of success - the equivalent of a coin toss.

For a law that determines so much of the health of the ocean and the ocean economy and serves as the de facto management framework for our nation’s ocean wildlife, the bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) received fairly brief treatment before being passed from the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee in late May.

Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) first floated a draft MSA bill in late fall of 2013 and the bill’s many harmful and extraneous provisions presented such a coagulated mess of future fisheries management that we dubbed it the “Empty Oceans Act.” The bill that passed the Committee in May and is now poised to head to the floor for a vote of the full House of Representatives was slightly altered but not improved in the least. Congress should oppose its passage.

However, during the markup of the bill there was a rare bright spot. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) offered an amendment that would require that every fishery management plan and every rebuilding plan for overfished stocks be required to have a probability of success that at least has a 75% chance of success. What’s not to like about that?

The problem that Rep. Tsongas seeks to address is New England’s historical reliance (and New England is not alone) on fishery management and rebuilding plans that set such high annual allowable catch limits that the probability of actually rebuilding the stock to healthy and economically optimal levels is the equivalent of a coin toss, i.e., only a 50% chance of probable success. The National Research Council (NRC) reportEvaluating the Effectiveness of Fish Stock Rebuilding Plans in the United States” (Sept. 2013) identified this problem as one of the first factors as to why stocks did not rebuild: “A stock may not rebuild in a timely manner for a variety of reasons. First, target exploitation rates are selected so that there is at least 50% probability of achieving rebuilding within the specified time period. Under such a criterion, even if everything went according to plan, only half of the stocks would be expected to recover within the selected time period.”

Increasing the odds for a fishery to be successful over time would not only create healthier stocks but would possibly relieve a lot of the stress of uncertainty for fishermen, who are now forced to make business decisions about the future of fisheries on a coin toss. That may work at the start of a football game to determine who should kick-off first but it isn’t a way to manage people’s lives.

This is not just an issue for NFMS, which is required to manage fish stocks at sustainable levels, or for fishermen who want to see stocks rebuild faster, but for each business invested in the fishery. If you own a restaurant or work in processing, transporting or selling fish once they are landed, wouldn’t you be better able to plan your business strategies knowing that the stocks you rely upon are much more likely to grow toward healthy levels year after year than not? If you are making heavy equipment purchases or investing in a new or refurbished facility, wouldn’t it help to have the certainty of knowing that the fishery you rely upon is statistically more likely to have stable or increased catch limits the next year?

Why is a 75% requirement a particularly good idea for New England’s highly-depleted groundfish? Because it is clear that allowing excessive fishing on depleted stocks or setting strongly optimistic catch levels doesn’t work. The NRC report points out that, “In particular, the relatively poor performance of stocks managed by the NEFMC can be attributed to the combined effects of delays implementing rebuilding plans, difficulties implementing reduced target fishing mortalities, and biases in the stock assessments for some of the stocks.” (p. 50) “In terms of stock assessment biases, there has been a tendency for some assessments to consistently overestimate stock size and underestimate fishing mortality.” (pg. 52) These persistent problems are just compounded when the manager’s probability of success is no more than 50% in any case, even with perfect science.

In the Committee markup in May, Rep. Tsongas’ preparation and positive arguments for improving the environmental and economic performance of New England fisheries was tripped up by the partisan nature of the Natural Resources Committee. Her amendment was not the first or the last to succumb to this politically moribund body. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for Congress. The New England Fishery Management Council could set a 75% standard for all rebuilding plans by themselves.


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