Sound Bites

Observations and obfuscations from a major national fisheries conference


Last week (May 7-8), I attended the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference 3 in Washington D.C. My thumbnail take: A lot of dedicated, well-meaning participants offered a great deal of information and exchanged many opinions. By and large the sessions I attended featured scientists in management and academia, and fishing interests. According to conference organizers, the event resulted in no fewer than 128 specific recommendations for improving fishery sustainability.

Those recommendations come at a significant time since the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal fisheries law of the land, is up this year for reauthorization — meaning there will be changes, and hopefully for the better. Per the press release from conference organizers (NOAA Fisheries and the eight Regional Fishery Management Councils), “There was also agreement that some changes are needed to keep the act relevant, flexible and responsive.”

That seemed a frequent theme and may indeed offer hope that lawmakers will revise the MSA to make it more reactive, regional and attentive to the socio-economic ramifications of management strategies.


But I can hardly report on yet another fisheries conference without the cynic in me demanding to be heard. That is, after enough conferences, there’s lots of been-there-done-that sense. So we’ll see what positive results this one may offer.

In any case, I thought I’d share some of the sound bites I heard during sessions I attended (there were concurrent sessions which obviously I couldn’t/didn’t attend); make of them what you will.

The Endangered Species Act

  • The ESA “has done more to keep environmental lawyers in business than to help species” (Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash and chairman of House Committee on Natural Resources)
  • Without the ESA, “We wouldn’t have the salmon we have in the Northwest today” (Jim Martin, conservation director, Berkley Conservation Institute)

Beyond Management

  • If we don’t win the battle in terms of coastal development, water use and so on, no management will suffice. (Jim Martin)

Management Shortcomings/Problems

  • At this point, we have a management system that doesn’t allow for common sense. (Jim Martin)
  • There must be a balance between preventing overfishing and providing an optimal yield (i.e. economic stability); right now, the balance may be tipped toward the former. (Doc Hastings)
  • We may need to allow additional time in plans to end overfishing to avoid unnecessary economic hardship. (Rip Cunningham, Chairman, New England Fishery Management Council)
  • Catch-level recommendations by NOAA to the fishery management councils and their committees are not being developed in a transparent manner. (Doc Hastings)

Management Success

  • Not everyone may love the (fishery management) council system, but I think most would much prefer that to having decisions made in D.C. (Doc Hastings)
  • Basically we’re ending overfishing (Eric Schwaab, Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management, NOAA Fisheries)
  • The Sportfishing Association of California with the World Wildlife Federation have been working with federal fisheries manager to demonstrate that the use of “descender devices” can successfully return endangered cow cod to deep water. Their encouraging tagging studies may allow anglers access to fishing grounds beyond 50 fathoms, currently closed to protect cow cod. (SAC president Ken Francke)

Recreational Fisheries, Allocation of Stocks

  • Among eight challenges facing federal fishery managers is dealing with recreational fisheries as unique and something we need to better understand and manage. (Eric Schwaab)
  • There are three fundamental flaws with federal management system: 1) Recreational-fishing activity is generally managed with the same tools as commercial fishing, but it’s a very different animal; 2) management strategies assume sufficient fisheries data is available for all fish stocks; and 3) fishery managers lack incentives to reexamine allocation. (Mike Nussman, president and CEO, American Sportfishing Association)
  • Allocation of stocks (between commercial and recreational sectors) is “rusted shut.” Catch shares, granting ownership in the resource and consolidating commercial fleets make it all the harder to “unlock” allocations. (Brad Gentner, president, Gentner Consulting Group)
  • We desperately need a standard method for analyzing allocations[ITAL], a method that is crisp, objective and transparent. (There is no standard at this time; look at Gulf red snapper to see the result of that.) (Jim Martin)
  • We need to look at stock abundance more frequently. Consider Gulf of Mexico red snapper: Abundance is “going through the roof.” A stock assessment due out this summer should show that. Yet snapper anglers face shortest seasons on record; we’re being penalized because we’re improving the stocks too quickly. (Brad Gentner)
  • Yes, allocation of stocks has become rusted shut, though (Dr. Jane) Lubchenco (former head of NOAA) said we’d revised them. We need to challenge regional management councils to consider re-allocations, not just table the idea, which has been the case. (Jim Martin)

Toward More Adaptable Management

  • Regarding current 10-year rebuilding plans, that time frame is “a policy call” and not a scientific standard (or necessarily ideal). (André Punt, professor, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington)
  • Warming water temps in the Atlantic off the Northeast coast are demonstrably altering the distribution of stocks; that means rebuilding plans for this area should be adjusted to incorporate those redistributions. (unidentified participant)
  • I haven’t seen much adaptability or agility to respond to crises or recognition of them at this conference. I’ve seen lots of back patting for restored stocks. (Jim Martin)

Other Stuff

  • We should remove from rebuilding plans stocks found not to be overfished upon reassessments but there is apparently no provision for that. (Andres Punt)
  • Fishery managers have an ethical obligation to generate economic value from marine resources (as stewards of public-trust resources). (Marty Smith, associate professor, Duke University, associate professor, Duke University)
  • National Ocean Policy creates “an entirely new level of bureaucracy.” (Doc Hastings)
  • “Big change is coming” with four drivers pushing it: 1) population increase and shifts in demographics, 2) climate change, 3) increasing globalization and 4) decreasing budgets for managing fisheries (“Our Cadillac budget now will become a Chevy budget, at best”). “It’s easy to come to a conference like this, look to the past and back your way into the future. Or you can look into the future and say, holy crap, here it comes — and get ready!” (Jim Martin)