October 15, 2020

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Article Contact: Chris Horton,

By: Chris Horton, Senior Director, Midwestern States and Fisheries Policy 

Federal fisheries management is a complicated mess. The only people you might find disagreeing with that statement are environmental organizations whose funding depends, at least in part, on leading the public to believe we need more regulations for our “imperiled” marine fisheries; or individuals and corporations who have exclusive rights to harvest a percentage of federal quota through what is known as a “catch share”. For the latter, as you can imagine, their level of satisfaction with federal fisheries management is usually directly proportional to the amount of fish they alone control.

For all the rest of us who fish for federally-managed species, whether it be commercially for a living or simply a chance to spend the day on the water with your family catching your own dinner, the vast majority of us agree – federal fisheries management needs help. For the recreational community, the Modern Fish Act was a good start, but the willingness to effect change by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service’s, also known as NOAA Fisheries, has left a lot to be desired.

That’s why a recent Presidential Executive Order (E.O. 13921) that promoted “American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth” by, in part, looking to the Regional Fishery Management Councils (Councils) for a “prioritized list of recommended actions to reduce burdens on domestic fishing and to increase production within sustainable fisheries” gives some hope but also raises some concerns.

The Good – Within weeks of the E.O., the Council Coordinating Committee, which consists of the chairs, vice chairs, and executive directors from each of the eight regional fishery management councils (councils), submitted a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with the first suggestion – restore management of fishing throughout the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), including Marine National Monument waters, to the Councils and the Secretary of Commerce as implemented by the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Shortly thereafter, President Trump signed a proclamation that reopened the Northeast Canyons and the Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing, effectively turning management back over to the New England Fishery Management Council. While recreational fishing in the monument was never prohibited, this was a good move.

The Councils already have the authority, and exercise it often, to close areas to fishing if the science demonstrates there is a need for resource protection. Equally as important, the Council process provides stakeholders – commercial fishermen, anglers, environmental organizations and the general public – an opportunity to participate in the development of any needed closures. National monuments, on the other hand, can close vast areas to access and sustainable consumptive uses with a stroke of the President’s pen, without any transparency or the necessary science to support such a decision. You can easily argue that this authority was an important tool around the turn of the last century when science-based resource management was in its infancy, but that’s far from the case today. In this regard, the Antiquities Act is an antique itself.

Additionally, we are hopeful the councils will include some recommendations that will benefit recreational fisheries directly, including a review of National Standard Guidelines. The National Standards are the regulatory vehicles for implementing the intent of Congress as enacted by the MSA. While Congress recently clarified in the Modern Fish Act  that recreational fisheries can be managed with, “extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, harvest control rules, or traditional or cultural practices of native communities in such fishery or fishery component,” the National Standard 1 guidelines continue to say that fisheries must be managed in weight or numbers of fish. It has become clear the overriding enabling legislation (MSA) is no longer consistent with how NOAA Fisheries is interpreting the law. Adjustments to the National Standard 1 guidelines to reflect the will of Congress would be a huge step forward for recreational anglers.

The Concerning – As much as we complain about being stuck in the commercial fisheries management paradigm of the MSA, the underlying tenants of fisheries conservation and sustainability in the MSA are something that the recreational fishing community has always supported. We can’t have enjoyable, successful fishing experiences without healthy, abundant fish populations and we’ll be the first to advocate for more restrictions if needed. So when we see calls to lift fishing restrictions and remove barriers in order to increase domestic seafood production, when most of our fisheries are already managed to a “maximum sustainable yield”, it begs the question – where is that increased production going to come from?

Ironically, the fear is a portion of that increased production could come from lifting some of the science-based closures that the councils have previously implemented under their authorities. The East Florida Coast Pelagic Longline Closed Area is one of those. More than two decades ago, swordfish in the Western Atlantic were in serious trouble due to overfishing. In 2001, the areas off the Florida and Georgia coast known to be important swordfish nursery grounds were closed to the U.S. pelagic longline fleet. Commercial fishing for swordfish in the area is still allowed, though with gear that is more effective at targeting swordfish and reducing bycatch.

The closure to pelagic longlines was a success, and the swordfish population has since recovered. Equally important is that the removal of the indiscriminate longline gear in the closed areas has significantly reduced bycatch and has led to healthy bill fish populations in general and a booming recreational fishing economy in South Florida as a result. Lifting the closure and allowing pelagic longlines in the area again would undoubtedly increase swordfish harvest and allow the U.S. to fully prosecute our commercial swordfish quota (apparently, we are one of the few countries who do not harvest our full quota each year). However, doing so would be to the economic detriment of local communities who are dependent upon recreational anglers traveling to the area each year to experience the phenomenal fishing opportunities the commercial pelagic longline closure has afforded.

The Councils have 180 days to develop their list of recommended changes to reduce barriers to domestic seafood production. The recommendations that will be brought forth this fall bear watching. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of room for improvement with federal fisheries management. However, it must be in the context of sound-science and with an eye on the unintended consequences of negatively impacting sustainable and economically important recreational fisheries. We shouldn’t “Rob Peter to Pay Paul”.

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