Guest Column: An end run around the NE Fisheries Management Council

First published on Sept. 15, 2015 at Seafoodnews.com; reprinted in Landings, October, 2015, with permission.

John Sackton is the publisher of SeafoodNews.com. Photo courtesy of J. Sackton.
John Sackton is the publisher of SeafoodNews.com. Photo courtesy of J. Sackton.

A group of conservation organizations in New England have called on President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to declare certain marine areas off New England as national monuments, in a new push to expand marine protected areas.

The Obama Administration is considering a national monument designation for three deep sea canyons and four sea mounts at the southern edge of Georges Bank. The primary purpose of this designation is to protect deep sea corals that are found in the canyons.

In addition, the Conservation Law Foundation is asking that the administration include Cashes Ledge in the monument designation.  Cashes Ledge is an area about 100 miles Northeast of Gloucester where a ridge rises to within 40 feet of the surface. The currents there are very conducive to mixing and support high productivity.

It has always been an important fishing ground.  It was declared essential fish habitat and closed to trawling by the New England Council in 2002. The CLF petition seeks to go around NOAA and the Council, and make Cashes Ledge part of a permanent marine sanctuary.

The petition is disingenuous because it fails to mention the forty year history of fisheries management and habitat protection already in place through the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other environmental laws. Saving Seafood has organized an industry petition to counter the very effective public campaign of CLF.

There are many legitimate criticisms of the New England Fisheries Management Council, which has one of the worst records in terms of stock management among U.S. regional councils. However, the new measures that have been put in place are in fact strenuously limiting fishing, with most stocks now harvested well below their sustainable limit. Over time this will lead to rebounding fishery populations.

Saving Seafood argues that current management actions are vetted via public meetings where the best available science and analytical tools are scrutinized in a transparent manner. The national monument request undermines the present democratic process established for fisheries management. In fact, it has largely been viewed by many involved in the management process as an “end-run” to the current process. It removes the ability for public and fishery stakeholders to provide input to a scientifically based, public process which is held to clear goals and objectives and replaces it with a purely political process.

The New England Fisheries Management Council just completed their work on a Habitat Amendment which will protect large areas of Cashes Ledge. These new regulatory measures are scheduled to be in place by 2016. They’ll be working on a regulatory action for deep sea canyons and seamounts toward the end of this month. The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council also recently approved an action to protect deep sea canyons and seamounts.

The success of the American system of fishery management, widely seen as one of the best in the world, has relied on a transparent and decentralized system of regional fishery management councils, and the centralized authority of NOAA. The key element of the law is that all management decisions must be based on the best available science.

Currently there is a lot of discussion on the types of protections needed for both the Canyons and Cashes ledge. The push for a national monument would be an end run around these discussions. By making this a political issue outside the council, the NGO’s are essentially giving up on the council system to make long term sustainability decisions. They would replace it with a political process where choices are made not based on science, but on the relative political strength of the combatants.

In some areas of the U.S., this type of politicization has already led to significant restrictions on commercial fishing, in favor of recreational fishing, with worse conservation outcomes. The reallocation of Gulf red snapper to less responsible and monitored recreational fishermen is one example. The stock was rebuilt from the efforts of the commercial sector, and then the fruits of that rebuilding were taken from them.

In Florida a political campaign years ago outlawed all gillnets, putting some entire fisheries out of business. In Alaska, there is a potential for a referendum that would end set netting in Cook Inlet, in favor of suburban anchorage recreational fishermen.

All of these campaigns have in common the disregard for the give and take of the present management system, and in particular the requirement that decisions have a scientific basis. The issues with Cashes Ledge and the Canyon habitats can be described and measured scientifically. The Council’s actions, and NOAA’s mandate, require that there be a scientific basis for regulations and protections.

By making an exaggerated emotional claim—that unless the protections on Cashes Ledge put in place in 2002 are retained forever, the entire ecosystem will be destroyed—the environmental groups are taking this argument out of the realm of science, and instead making a political end run. In the long run, a small player like the commercial fishing industry cannot stand up to this kind of attack.

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