So a fisherman wants to go catch some fish. Seems like a simple enough undertaking—assuming one has the boat, gear, knowledge and skill to complete the task. For quite some time in our not so distant history, it was this simple- fishermen with the properly acquired know-how and gear would rise early in the morning and set out to harvest what they could as part of an honest day’s work. With a general lack of foresight and understanding regarding environmental impacts, it was assumed that nature would have a way of correcting and balancing whatever fishermen were able to take from the sea. In a relatively short period of time, advances in technology, engines, and gear meant that the time honored fight between man and fish was no longer the fair and balanced struggle that it had been for centuries. Simultaneously, giant factory trawlers from foreign countries were also exploiting the rich and bountiful fishing grounds surrounding the United States. Terms like overfished and overfishing entered the local lingo for the first time, and it became clear that something had to be done to regulate what had become a relative free-for-all on the open water.
Seeing that fish and the ocean are not owned in private, the federal government stepped in when it became evident that regulations were needed to ensure the health of our fisheries for future generations. Beginning in 1976 with the passage of the Fishery Management and Conservation Act (Later called the Magnuson- Stevens Act), the US Commerce Department assumed the responsibility of overseeing and regulating fishermen harvesting seafood off US shores. The original intent and political momentum for the passage of this legislation was tied to a clause that established a 200-mile limit—or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—extending from the coast of the contiguous United States. This imaginary line in the ocean was drawn in an effort to expel the immense foreign factory trawlers from companies like Japan and Norway that had set up shop in our waters, sweeping up hundreds of square miles of ocean bottom at a time and threatening to destroy the environment and our local fishermen at an alarming rate. The successful passage of the Magnuson Stevens Act meant that these enormous vessels were no longer welcome in what had officially become “US waters” while also establishing a framework for managing US fishermen in the hopes of promoting and preserving healthy US fisheries.
The history of fisheries management in the United States is an immense, complicated, and often convoluted topic. Just understanding the different agencies and departments responsible for regulating local fisheries can feel like making sense of a bowl of alphabet soup. What’s more, it turns out that counting fish and understanding their patterns and behavior is an incredibly intricate and somewhat imprecise science. Although scientists have been working for centuries to try and interpret and predict fish behavior, there is still a long way to go before accurate predictions can be made regarding the relative health of individual commercially harvested fish stocks. Changing environmental conditions and fluctuating water temperatures are making this even more challenging. For these reasons, only a very broad and basic overview of fisheries management has been included here in an effort to provide a simplistic outline of the rules and regulations that impact the harvest and sale of local seafood.
Federal US fisheries were established with the passage of the Magnuson Stevens Act. The Act falls under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), department that is staffed by 1000’s of public employees and headed by appointees of the executive department. Federal fisheries encompass all waters past two miles off US shores and extend to the end of the 200 mile limit. Aside from establishing the Exclusive Economic Zone noted above, the Magnuson Stevens Act also established eight Regional Fisheries Management Councils which are tasked with formulating and implementing regional fisheries management plans. Here in New England, the New England Fisheries Management Council is an appointed body of regulators who oversee several fisheries management plans including the Northeast Multispecies Federal Management Plan, which regulates the management of 16 individual stocks of commercially harvested fish here in the northwest Atlantic. Members of this highly influential Council are appointed from various backgrounds- nominations are made by the governors of each state represented at Council and The Commerce Department makes the final appointments. There are also representatives from respective state governments, NOAA, and non-voting members from United States Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of State, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Although it has been amended several times since its original passage, the Magnuson Stevens Act in its present form has lists seven main purposes:
1. Acting to conserve fishery resources
2. Supporting enforcement of international fishing agreements
3. Promoting fishing in line with conservation principles
4. Providing for the implementation of fishery management plans (FMPs) which achieve optimal yield
5. Establishing Regional Fishery Management Councils to steward fishery resources through the preparation, monitoring, and revising of plans which (A) enable stake holders to participate in the administration of fisheries and (B) consider social and economic needs of states.
6. Developing underutilized fisheries
7. Protecting essential fish habitats
Despite the fact that these purposes are listed in numbered order, none is supposed to take precedent over any of the others. Balancing the individual outcomes and consequences of accomplishing each of these seven purposes has proven nearly impossible in the real world.
Given that most of the species commercially harvested here in the US live in federal waters, NOAA is arguably the single most important and influential regulatory body involved in the management and oversight of fishing in the United States.
All of the fish and other seafood harvested from shore to two miles off the coast are regulated by individual states. Here in Massachusetts, the Division of Marine Fisheries, a division of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, is tasked with regulating the commercial and recreational harvest of seafood in state waters. This office works closely with the federal government, other state departments, and local advocacy and nonprofit groups in their efforts to oversee and manage the species that live in state waters. Additionally, several interstate organizations have been organized to ensure that individual state policies work in coordination with policies from neighboring states. The state of Massachusetts belongs to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is a collaboration between coastal Atlantic states with the purpose of promoting “ the better utilization of the fisheries, marine, shell and anadromous, of the Atlantic seaboard by the development of a joint program for the promotion and protection of such fisheries, and by the prevention of physical waste of the fisheries from any cause.”
Non-Profits and Non-Governmental Organizations
Many of the most important and influential players in the field of fisheries management are the non-profits and non-governmental organizations that have been organized to support one of a number of user groups that are part of the fisheries management process. These groups include advocacy groups acting on behalf of fishermen, recreational users, and the environment. Large corporations including those working in the energy industry are also major players on the fisheries management stage. As is the case with anything political, money often drives much of the decision making process. The result is that any group that has a financial interest in fisheries management is going to take part one way or another in the decision making process. Influential advocacy groups working on behalf of local fishermen in Gloucester include the Northeast Seafood Coalition and the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association.
As if the above governmental and non-governmental framework for fisheries management weren’t enough, there are also several international fisheries that extend beyond the bounds of federal US waters. The bluefin tuna fishery is a prime example and is useful for illustrating how NOAA and other federal fishery management councils must work in cooperation with international fisheries management organizations to ensure the proper health and management of fish stocks that extend beyond the neat lines that humans draw on maps. Bluefin are one of the most highly evolved ocean creatures, designed like sleek torpedoes and capable of immense bursts of speed and amazing travel distances. Swimming north each spring from the Gulf of Mexico and west from the Mediterranean, bluefin arrive off the coast of New England and points north and south to feast on the rich schools of bait fish that congregate on the great banks off our shores. In order to regulate this stock, officials must look well beyond their territorial boarders to effectively manage some of these more migratory species. NOAA’s highly migratory species division works closely with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) to manage this species. Bluefin is just one of several highly migratory species that are regulated in cooperation with international fisheries management organizations.
In the coming weeks and months, we will take a deeper look at some of the management structures and organizations outlined above, paying close attention to the challenges that have resulted in the current crisis facing New England fishermen.