New England Fisheries,  Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Optimum Yield for the Environment and All of Us

Image via NOAA Okeanos Explorer.

There is no shortage of historic firsts for the Atlantic Ocean. From the European discoveries of New England’s vast cod abundance that launched colonial America’s first industry to Marconi’s first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission to Lindberg’s harrowing trans-Atlantic flight, the Atlantic Ocean has hosted some of our greatest achievements – and there still is so much more to discover and accomplish.

But the Atlantic and the rest of our oceans face numerous threats, the most alarming and unpredictable of which is climate change. President Obama understands both the scientific imperative for taking action to make the Atlantic Ocean more resilient to the inevitable ravages of climate change and the need for the United States to lead on this issue.

Another first for the U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Thanks to the President’s environmental leadership, the world just witnessed another first: the first landscape–scale marine area in the Atlantic to receive full protection from commercial activities, now known as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

The new monument encompasses areas of extraordinary marine biodiversity and scientific importance. Despite decades of impacts from lobster and crab pots as well as even more damaging mobile fishing gears, the habitats and wildlife of the underwater canyons and seamounts are miraculously still largely intact. And the damage done by fishing and fishing gear to these remarkable areas will likely recover in time, now that threats from mineral exploration, gas drilling, and commercial fishing have been eliminated.

For the first time, some of the most iconic of the endangered whale species will have a refuge where they won’t have to compete with fishing boats and other commercial activities for survival. That is something President Obama – and all of us – can and should be proud of.

The President also properly identified this action as necessary as a critical strategic step forward in response to climate change. Scientists argue that marine protected areas increase the ability of ocean wildlife and plants to cope with the stresses of climate change. In the absence of other human stresses, wildlife populations can regain maximum health and marine biodiversity will be better protected. That diversity may contain genetic differences in populations of fish that will allow them to adapt more successfully to rising ocean temperatures and acidity.

A large protected area will also give scientists a needed background reference site so that they can better understand the impacts of climate change and provide relevant management advice in this rapidly changing ocean ecosystem. Ocean management today in New England is proceeding in a scientific vacuum because of the absence of meaningful reference sites that can be monitored and studied over time.

Unfortunate – and flawed – opposition

It is unfortunate that more people in the fishing industry don’t feel able to join the hundreds of businesses, scientists, religious organizations, aquaria, fishermen and politicians in celebration of the new monument. Industry leaders and seafood processors, including many who identify as strong conservationists interested in the ocean’s long-term health, have reacted to the creation of these ocean wilderness areas with almost existential angst. They have repeatedly, and hyperbolically, suggested publicly that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars will be lost, when in reality, the marine monument designation has not resulted in any reduction of quota for commercial marine species and is less than 2% of the ocean that is still available to commercial fishing.

Rational or objective responses from the industry to the monument designation seem to be clouded by the industry’s notion that they own and control the ocean and that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act alone is the ocean’s constitution. From the industry’s viewpoint, any action that doesn’t get run through the fishermen-dominated Magnuson-Stevens management process is inherently illegitimate to this way of thinking. While understandable from the perspective that fishing has been the major economic game in town in this region’s ocean for generations, it is fundamentally flawed.

For the most part, the U.S. fishery management councils are doing a good job of managing the fisheries under their care – the familiar and often-accurate “the best managed fisheries in the world” perspective. The industry argument against marine monuments is largely that marine protection efforts that do not use the fishery management process undermine those fishery management efforts.

There are additional arguments that the monument process is not open and transparent and some industry leaders point to the fishery management councils as the paradigm of an open, transparent public process for ocean management.

Those arguments are compelling but only if one doesn’t know anything about the Magnuson-Stevens Act or the fishery management councils. The reality is that the scope of the councils’ work under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, while critically important, is limited and the fishery councils are very narrowly focused on the human side of the equation: fishing and fisheries.

Relative to the range of actions that must be taken to achieve healthy, thriving oceans – especially in an unprecedented and uncertain era of rising temperatures and increasingly acidic conditions in the ocean – the fishery management system is a necessary but insufficient management tool for protecting marine biodiversity and ocean health.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a federal law of limited reach

The Magnuson-Stevens Act set up a unique system for managing federal fish and shellfish populations in the United States that is markedly different than the federal laws or programs that manage federal forest lands or federal range lands in the West. Federal agencies directly manage the nation’s public forests and range lands. Those agencies are charged by the statutes they operate under to serve all the public interests embedded in those public resources.

For example, the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires the federal government to manage and preserve the public lands in its charge in a way that protects “the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values.” Reserving and protecting special lands from commercial activities for their ecological or scientific value is as much a part of FLPMA’s charge to the federal managers as is allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on those public lands.

The importance of habitat conservation in the ocean is every bit as important as it has always been on land. But there is no counterpart to this comprehensive responsibility in federal fishery law. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, as is heralded by its very name, is only about managing and optimizing fisheries. Fish only matter insofar as they are being killed sustainably or not, whether the “optimum yield” to the fishery – not the environment – is being achieved. This is not a bad objective; it just isn’t sufficient. While there are marine biodiversity benefits associated with well-managed fisheries, those benefits are not the purpose of management.

A red crab pot on a coral covered ledge. Image via Peter Auster.

Fishery councils have neither the expertise, the interest, nor the governance structure to manage for healthy oceans. They only manage commercially-important fish – a tiny fraction of the wildlife that comprises the vast web of life in the ocean. Image via Peter Auster.

This limitation is widely recognized, even by notable scientists like Dr. Ray Hilborn, who are often critical of the tools and approaches used by the conservation community to advance ocean health. And while there undoubtedly should be a federally-run, multi-stakeholder and multi-use ocean management statute equivalent to FLPMA, there isn’t one.

If there were such a statute, the governance structure and management decisions would not be controlled by non-governmental entities that had economic interest conflicts with the multi-purpose goals of the statute, i.e. the fishing industry.

Fishery councils don’t do comprehensive ocean conservation

The eight U.S. fishery management councils and the Magnuson-Stevens Act under which they operate manage fisheries. The Holy Grail of fishery management is optimizing the sustainable yield of the ocean for profitable seafood production. Period. Everything else is derivative of or tangential to that statutory objective.

The Magnuson-Stevens fishery councils have neither the expertise, the interest, nor the governance structure to manage for healthy oceans. Fishery councils only manage a tiny fraction of the animals that comprise the vast web of life in the ocean, and even their discretionary authority to protect deep-sea corals is only exercised “to the extent practicable.” In the Atlantic, that translates to no coral habitat areas where all commercial fishing is prohibited. Other wildlife and biodiversity is only of concern to fishery councils as “bycatch:” the unmarketable stuff that comes up in the nets that has to be shoveled back overboard.

Marine biodiversity protection has never been an explicit or implicit goal of fisheries management, particularly in New England. Here, the fishery management council hasn’t even pretended to exercise any larger sense of responsibility for the health of the ocean off our shores. In its most recent “habitat protection” management action, for example, the New England Council refused to create even one scientific research area that could be used as a reference site to determine the impacts of fishing and fishing gears on the ocean or the growing influence of greenhouse gas emissions.

As far as the “open and transparent” process argument goes, there has been a lot of process associated with the designation of the Atlantic Ocean’s first large marine national monument. Some of the potentially affected fishermen, for example, have admitted they have been actively involved in the discussion for more than a year. It’s just that that process hasn’t been happening within the council process that these fishing interests control. A public comment period was open for a year, and fishing industry representatives met with government officials to discuss the idea on multiple occasions. Extensive comments and input were solicited and provided to the White House and the federal agencies as part of President Obama’s decision-making process.

The real gripe from some in the commercial fishing industry isn’t that there wasn’t any process in the monument designation; it’s that they didn’t get to control the process as they do with fisheries issues. As they shouldn’t.

A monument is a cause for celebration

Developing a comprehensive and integrated policy framework for managing U.S. oceans that includes all the interests that comprise the ocean community along the lines that Dr. Hilborn and others are pushing for, however, is a matter for another day. Now is a time to celebrate the President, Secretary of State Kerry, Interior Secretary Jewell, Commerce Secretary Pritzker and the Congressional and agency leaders who supported the President’s action. They have given the American people, our children, and future generations an extraordinary gift—the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

Other countries will surely take note and will likely follow the President’s lead. It is a time indeed to celebrate the future of our ocean.



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