Waking from the Gluttony

The first in a new series from Michael Conathan outlines the issues confronting our nation’s fisheries.

Part of a Series
The crew of the Lovey Joann mends their net at the Thompsen Harbor in Sitka, Alaska. (AP/Chris Miller)
The crew of the Lovey Joann mends their net at the Thompsen Harbor in Sitka, Alaska. (AP/Chris Miller)

This feature is the first in a new series from CAP dealing with fisheries management issues. The series will publish biweekly on Fridays. It is a joint column with Science Progress.

A strong case can be made that fishing is America’s oldest profession. Europeans were using parts of what is now Atlantic Canada as seasonal fish camps as far back as the early 15th century—even before Columbus confused the Caribbean for the shores of India.

Many fisheries scientists were sure there was no way humans could make a dent in the seemingly endless abundance of fish in the ocean as late as the middle of the 20th century. But our fishing industries were already well on their way to proving them wrong. It now seems that the problems facing our fisheries are as plentiful as cod once were on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and throughout the Gulf of Maine.

We now live in a world where overfishing is far too prevalent. To stem this tide, regulators impose tighter and tighter restrictions on fishermen,* in the face of fundamental disagreements among harvesters, regulators, and conservationists about how many is too many.

Fisheries scientist John Shepherd is often quoted saying, “Counting fish is like counting trees, except they are invisible and they keep moving.” Eric Schwaab, the current administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, likes to tack on this critical addendum: “and they eat each other.” Given these ecological realities one can understand why fisheries science—which creates the stock assessments that in turn lead to catch limits—is often controversial.

Data on the health of commercial fisheries are difficult to come by. That goes double for recreational fisheries. After all, is it easier to track 100 fishermen catching 10,000 pounds of fish each or a million fishermen catching 10 pounds of fish each?

One of the goals of the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA, was to pave the way for improving our fisheries science. The reauthorization required fishery managers to impose specific annual catch limits in every fishery, among other changes.

fisheries value

Of course, these reductions in harvest levels hit fisheries and affiliated shoreside industries in the wallet. In the 10 years leading up to the 1996 passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which imposed firm timelines for rebuilding fish populations, the average value of all fish brought to market in the United States was $5.74 billion (adjusted for inflation to 2009 dollars). From 2000 through 2009, the average annual value was $4.21 billion.

Few people—including fishermen—will argue that the harvest levels of the late 1980s and early ‘90s were sustainable. They were not. But these economic losses can be particularly difficult to swallow when the fishermen who are on the water day in and day out see fish populations beginning to rebound from years of decline. But scientists can’t make snap decisions based on anecdotal observations. They have to compile and crunch the numbers, then send their findings to other scientists for peer review to determine with any degree of confidence whether regulations are working.

This dynamic leads to a vicious cycle:

1) Scientists produce new stock assessments based on inherently flawed but technically best available data that suggest overfishing has occurred in the past.

2) Managers impose regulations setting lower catch limits for fishermen.

3) Fishermen resist the lower catch limits because the scientists’ stock assessments are based on two- to three-year-old data, claim that things have been looking up in the interim, and demand new stock assessments.

4) Go to point 1.

And yet fishermen acknowledge the need for long-term fish stock sustainability. Their livelihoods, their communities, and their history depend on it. No fish, no fishing. Simple. There is a tremendous amount at stake. Schwaab pointed out at a hearing this week before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, that our fisheries support more than 1.9 million jobs and generate $163 billion in sales impacts.

Something must be done. But what? Some groups, including NMFS, have begun touting a cap-and-trade style management system known as “catch shares” as a cure for the industry’s ills. Under this system the total amount of fish available is divided and doled out to fishermen by percentages based on their catch histories, providing an ownership incentive to protect the long-term health of the resource.

Such a framework, though, often comes with more questions than answers. And in fact the House of Representatives passed an amendment to its recent spending bill for fiscal year 2011, filed by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), that would prevent any federal funding from being used to develop new catch share programs.

Congress is well aware that every job matters as the country struggles to emerge from the ongoing recession. Likewise, every cod has inherent value in the water as fish populations struggle to rebuild after years of excessive exploitation. Finding the balance between ecological and economic sustainability—the value of a cod left in the sea relative to the value of a cod filet on a plate—will be critical to the future of our nation’s coastal communities and environment.

The world’s fishing industries are awakening from a season of gluttony to face the hangover—like the blowout excess of Mardi Gras morphing into the austerity of Lent. We are at a crossroads. A hair of the dog descent back into the cycle of debauchery will no doubt lead to ruin.

This column will endeavor to help fishery managers, industry members, and environmental advocates engage in a desperate search for two aspirin and a tall glass of cold water that will dull the pain of payback and put America’s oldest industry back on a path to a healthy, vibrant future.

Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at American Progress.

This feature is the first in a new series from CAP dealing with fisheries management issues. The series will publish biweekly on Fridays. It is a joint column with Science Progress.

* It has been the author’s experience that women in the commercial fishing industry tend to chafe at use of the gender-neutral term “fishers” and prefer to be referred to as “fishermen.” We will use that term throughout this series to refer to all who engage in commercial fishing activities regardless of gender.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

Explore The Series