The Exhausted Sea
Good fish managers, like good parents, eventually learn that one of the kindest words they can utter is "no."
Audubon July/Sept. 2003
"We have to separate the scientific aspects of fisheries management from the allocation," Camhi told me. "You can't have them both done under the same roof by the same people." Consider the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association (CCCHFA), represented on the Joint Dogfish Committee of the New England and Mid-Atlantic councils by John Pappalardo, who fishes out of Chatham, Massachusetts. Hook fishing by longline (at least for dogfish and groundfish) is promoted by the environmental community as "habitat-friendly," because it doesn't bulldoze the seabed like mobile net gear, or drown seabirds and turtles like pelagic longlines. Along with Audubon, the CCCHFA is a member of the Marine Fish Conservation Network. It is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and other conservation-minded foundations. It's a good group in lots of ways, but it's conflicted, because 80 percent of the dogfish quota for the New England and mid-Atlantic management regions is taken by Massachusetts, and 65 percent of that is landed at Chatham. Moreover, most of the dogfish are caught by hook fishermen. When Massachusetts proposed doubling the quota, Pappalardo and the other five members of the Joint Dogfish Committee cast yes votes. To its credit, the NMFS overrode the committee, insisting on a sustainable quota. But this didn't ease the slaughter in state waters.
It is difficult to understand the thinking of your typical commercial fisherman, who is outraged by all quotas and who invariably gets politicians to increase them. Essentially, the argument is this: "We need fish for our livelihoods, so let us eradicate them." I have heard more than one commercial fisherman utter words to this effect: "When the law of diminishing returns kicks in, we back off, and the fish recover." Their apologists even have a name for it: "pulse fishing." Left to regulate themselves, commercial fishermen will continue to strip-mine the sea, fish down the food chain, and spew pseudo science to justify whatever seems profitable at the moment.
Where they have been regulated by scientists, commercial fishermen have profited from healthy fish stocks. Good fish managers, like good parents, eventually learn that one of the kindest words they can utter is "no." There aren't a lot of happy endings, but an examination of successes (or near successes) illuminates the reasons for failures. Fordham and Camhi don't agree with the NMFS's Murawski that summer flounder management is a "success," but they acknowledge that it's close. A good reason for this is that the Ocean Conservancy, Audubon, Environmental Defense, and the NRDC won a lawsuit against the NMFS four years ago, forcing it to impose quotas that had a decent chance of helping the stock recover. But another reason is that the Mid-Atlantic council, in charge of summer flounder (even though the fish's range extends well into New England), has behaved aberrantly—that is, it has accepted quotas for a decade. The New England council seems allergic to quotas. Instead, it seeks painless diets, vainly trying to make things right by restricting gear and limiting days at sea.
Swordfish are recovering, despite the dereliction of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a sorry congregation of fishmongers and politicians that tends "highly migratory species" (tuna, sharks, and billfish) beyond our federal waters. In 1990, under intense lobbying by commercial swordfishermen, Congress enjoined the NMFS, which tends highly migratory species in federal waters, from setting regulations that were stricter than ICCAT's. As a result swordfish collapsed. Average weight dropped from 115 to 60 pounds, and 25-pounders were being sold at Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market as "pups."
The NMFS, which was doing nothing to stop gross longline bycatch of sublegal swordfish, needed to be shaken by the lapels, and in 1998 the NRDC and SeaWeb (a Pew offshoot) did just that by organizing the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, which convinced 27 leading East Coast restaurants to remove swordfish from their menus. This got the attention of the feds. Meanwhile, Audubon and its allies went to court and forced the NMFS to close large areas to fishing. Today North Atlantic swordfish have recovered to 94 percent of the biomass scientists consider "healthy." But most of the fish are still juveniles, and now the industry is pushing a plan to open up swordfish sanctuaries in the guise of "scientific research."
Although the ASMFC recently punted on an opportunity to recover the age and size structure of the Atlantic Coast striped bass population, the management of "stripers," as they are affectionately known by anglers, is about as close to pure success as fish management gets. As with virtually all species of marine fish, however, we had to nearly wipe them out before we managed them. Despite effort that I'd call prodigious (others, "obsessive"), I went whole seasons in the mid-1980s without catching a single striper, contenting myself instead with the giant bluefish that had surged into the inshore niche. Today a dozen stripers, caught and released, is a slow day. Striper recovery has come about because Congress got fed up with the individual states' inability to say no, and in 1986 passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which transformed the ASMFC from a sideline adviser to an enforcement power. Now the agency can shut down fishing if a state doesn't manage stripers scientifically.
But there'’s another reason for success. Stripers are caught (and were depleted) mostly by recreational fishermen. And recreational fishermen were willing to accept—in fact demanded—draconian quotas: one-fish daily limits at first. Now, for most states, it's two fish. "Stripers are a success," remarks Camhi, "because we got the commercial guys off the fish, and the recreational guys were willing to do what it took."
Largely responsible for the consistent excellence of the fisheries sections of the recent Pew report was Pew oceans commissioner Mike Hayden—trained biologist; ardent angler and conservationist; former Republican governor of Kansas; former assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks under George H. Bush; former president of the American Sportfishing Association; and now secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. When Hayden talks fish, his friend George W. Bush listens.
The President himself is an ardent angler. So is the Vice-President. So is Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who presides over the NMFS. On April 25, 2003, the administration took a strong stand for marine fish when Evans blasted ICCAT for consistently setting unsustainable quotas against the advice of its own scientists. In a letter to Pascal Lamy, European Union Commissioner for Trade, Evans wrote: "I am urging you to take prompt action to improve EU compliance with existing ICCAT obligations and to reconsider accepting science-based conservation measures to guarantee a sustainable future for species like the Atlantic bluefin tuna and white marlin."
Congress is in far greater need of education than the administration. For example, Richard Pombo (R-CA), chair of the House Resources Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the oceans, calls the Pew report "a $5 million coffee-table picture book." And Senate Appropriations chair Ted Stevens (R-AK), who cowrote the Sustainable Fisheries Act provisions that kept commercial fishermen regulating themselves, proclaims that the document "is tainted by the millions of dollars [the Pew Charitable Trusts] spend on environmental litigation aimed at stopping commercial fishing."