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June 16, 2010

Q & A: Eric Schwaab - New Head of NMFS

This Sport Fishing newsmaker interview offers Mr. Schwaab the chance to share with the recreational-fishing community the philosophy and approach he brings to NMFS as its new chief...

SF: Catch shares - Developing and implementing its catch-share policy has of course become a top priority of this NOAA administration. I think it's fair to say the RFC has some serious issues with catch shares. I'd like to get your reaction to two questions:

(a) How will your NMFS respond to RFC concerns about catch shares in mixed-use/mixed-species fisheries, particularly that of locking up large portions of public resources for long-term commercial harvest, without sufficient provision to reallocate if/when warranted by evidence (e.g., better recreational data, if the federal government finally devotes requisite resources to gathering that data)?

ES: First, I want to acknowledge the concerns of many in the recreational-fishing community regarding the impact of this relatively new tool. We understand the need to provide clear policy guidance to address many of these concerns and continue to work on those issues. I also want to say that NOAA's policy does not mandate the use of catch shares for any fishery. This is a decision made at the local level through the regional fishery management council process. As noted above, catch-share systems are credited in many fisheries with improving performance, stability and sustainability, and therefore should not be rejected out of hand. I would also note that the Magnuson-Stevens Act states that limited-access privileges do not create a right, title or interest in or to any fish before it is fished. A catch-share privilege is not issued in perpetuity. The privilege can be revoked, limited or modified at any time in accordance with the law. A council should include time schedules in its fishery management plan to directly reallocate at a future date or provide for a process for future transfers of allocations when certain thresholds are reached. NOAA recommends that councils design fair and equitable distribution of the catch that takes into consideration economic, social and cultural characteristics of the fishery.

(b) Do you recognize the RFC's concerns that catch-share programs for mixed-use fisheries are being fast-tracked without sufficient analyses - analyses mandated by federal law and so far ignored - of the impact that catch shares will have on local economies, particularly those dependent upon sport fishing?

ES: I have heard this concern. However, the catch-share programs currently under consideration are following the same timeline, requirements and standards of any management option. They're not going at an accelerated rate. There is no NOAA mandate, quota, or numerical target or timeline for the use of catch-share programs by councils. I also believe that many of the economic concerns experienced by local communities derive not from catch-share programs, but instead from rebuilding programs or insufficient stocks to meet demand. We can certainly benefit from improved social and economic data and analyses, and we are working to improve that. The proposed budget for economics and social science for next year is a 48 percent increase over the 2009 budget.

SF: Communication - I have in recent months expressed disappointment with repeated failures to communicate effectively with the RFC, NOAA's approach seeming consistently to be too little and too late. The result of NOAA's policy decisions and its failure to work with the RFC is what I sense as a greater antipathy toward federal fisheries management than at any time I can remember. Fair assessment? And if you believe this is in fact a concern, what do you propose to do that can change that antipathy and restore trust?

ES: I know that we need more effective and regular interaction with those involved in the diverse recreational fisheries. We need not only to communicate regularly, but also to work together to identify priority issues and focus energy and resources on addressing those issues. I am an avid recreational fisherman and have worked closely for many years with the recreational-fishing community. I also know that recreational fishermen care deeply about stewardship of the resources. So it should not be hard for us to communicate more effectively and more consistently. We also need to work together to achieve greater clarity in our conversations. We have legitimate debates about the scientific understanding of status of stocks, multispecies interactions and causes of trends. We also have reasonable differences of opinion about management strategy, levels of precaution and allocation, just to name a few. But too often, everything gets rolled up together - science, uncertainty, allocation, management strategies and long-term goals - to the point that our conversations lose focus and we end up talking past one another.

I have also just named Russ Dunn as the National Policy Advisor for Recreational Fisheries to report to me directly on these issues. We've also just appointed 22 members of the recreational-fishing community from around the nation to a Recreational Fisheries Working Group to provide expertise on saltwater recreational fishing to NOAA's Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee. Dr. Lubchenco and I are hosting the upcoming summit to reinitiate this important conversation with the recreational-fishing community. [Ed. note: That summit was held April 16-17.] At the summit, we will explore issues important to recreational fisheries and identify priority actions for moving forward.

SF: Resource allocation - Finally, I'm wondering if you're familiar with economic studies that make it hard to understand why NMFS has shown so little interest in even considering the reallocation of resources in specific coastal fisheries where numbers of recreational fishermen increase steadily? (And, again, why NOAA's budget would devote no new funding to gather data in these valuable fisheries?) Are you familiar with an economic study last year that concluded grouper in the Gulf of Mexico would be far more valuable if managed strictly as a recreational resource? What about a Texas A&M study last year that showed a combined total value for Texas' shrimp and snapper-grouper fisheries of $11.8 billion - of which approximately $10 billion comes from recreational fishing for snapper and grouper?

ES: While I am not familiar with those particular studies, I am familiar with the debate. I can also tell you that economic impact is only one basis for setting allocations and that NOAA Fisheries considers changes in allocations through the fishery management plan process. As I think you know, regional fishery management councils recommend allocations based on a variety of factors, and there is a long history of allocation debate and court action around these topics across the country. While I am certainly willing to discuss this issue further, it is a discussion with broad economic and policy implications that must be considered by councils and the various sectors involved in a fishery.