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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reforming United States Fishing Laws

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Ludden of member station WBUR reports on proposals for reform of Federal fishing laws in the face of dwindling US fish stocks. The Magnusen Act of 1977 protected US waters from overfishing by foreign vessels, but now domestic fishing has nearly wiped out many commercial stocks. Politicians and scientists are trying to balance protection of the fish against the needs of fishing communities, but at least one of the two may ultimately lose out.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the 1970s, fish stocks off US shores were in trouble. Foreign fleets and their giant factory boats came as close as 12 miles from land, scooping up huge amounts of fish, and threatening the health of both the stocks and the domestic fishing industry. So in 1977, the US, like many other countries, pushed its offshore claim out to 200 miles, and established new rules to manage fish for the benefit of its own fishermen. Within just a few years, many stocks had rebounded, but soon a domestic fishing boom again brought some fisheries to the brink of collapse. Today, in places like George's Bank off New England, many fish are just about commercially extinct, and conservationists are blaming the very law which was meant to protect them. They want Congress to change the whole approach to management, but the industry says some proposals could destroy fishing communities. From member station WBUR in Boston, Jennifer Ludden reports.

(Screeching gulls by the seaside)

LUDDEN: It's here in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and other New England fishing ports that the collapse of the region's fishing industry is most evident. Dozens of boats have left the industry in recent years. Those that remain must work harder and longer to catch the dwindling stocks of haddock, cod, and flounder. The fish species here are among the most depleted in the country, but some say New England is simply the most glaring example of how the general system for managing US fisheries has failed. That system is laid out in the 1977 Magnussen Fishery and Conservation Act. The law takes a decentralized approach to fisheries management. Regulatory and enforcement power is vested largely in 8 regional councils staffed by fishermen, boat owners, and processors. And access to the industry is virtually unlimited. Anyone willing to buy the equipment and put in long hours can fish. Brian Gorman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the law was written specifically to protect the independence of fishing communities.

GORMAN: Part of the worry of the framers of the Magnussen Act was of a paternalistic Federal Government that would impose some kind of universal system. I think just in terms of fairness, a lot of fishery managers felt that access ought to be open to all fishermen, just as part of a democratic process.

LUDDEN: Much of this philosophy is now being rethought. The regional councils, for example, have been accused of promoting the short-term interests of fishing communities at the expense of the long-term health of fish stocks. Massachusetts Congressman Gary Studds chairs the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. He helped draft the original Magnussen Act, and will play a major role in any overhaul of the law. He says the idea of giving decision-making power to the industry was well-intentioned, but flawed.

STUDDS: Today I suspect, almost 20 years later, one would not do it that way, if for no other reason than that we would be, have the usual jaundiced eye look at us and say my gosh, you've got people, in many cases in the Council, who have a vested personal interest in a particular fishery, responsible for regulating it. That you not only permit, you mandate a conflict of interest, and that would be unthinkable.

LUDDEN: Studds says the new law should base decisions less on their social impact on communities and more on what scientists say the resource can sustain.

STUDDS: The scientists have been crying for some time and have not really been listened to and their warnings have not been heeded and respected. I think the role of good science has got to be strengthened and increased.

LUDDEN: To do that, environmentalists are urging that regional fishery councils be required to include scientists. They argue that fish are not a bounty to exploit, but a limited, in some cases endangered, resource. Bill Mott of the Marine Fish Conservation Network points out that fish are one of the few resources essentially free for the taking. He advocates a charge on fishing boats similar to a stumpage fee for logging on Federal land, or grazing fees for cattle ranchers. The money would then be spent on conservation programs.

MOTT: They have a privilege in fishing, they don't have a right to fish in the oceans; it's a public resource. It's owned by you and me, just as much as anybody that's out there fishing for that resource. And we need to make sure that we conserve that fishery resource for the future.

LUDDEN: Perhaps the most controversial proposed change to the Magnussen Act is to restrict, for the first time, access to the sea. During the 1970s easy Federal credit led to an explosion in the number of boats, just as fish-catching technology rapidly advanced. Today, lawmakers say there are simply too many boats and they're too efficient. Regulators have responded by limiting the time boats can go out, yet most boats are still allowed to catch as much as they can during that time. Reformers say this approach has failed to protect stocks. They advocate instead limiting the total number of boats in the water and the amount of fish they can catch. Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund says boats should be given quotas equaling a percentage of each year's total catch. He says the quotas could be traded or sold, and this would encourage boat owners to conserve.

FUJITA: Because they hold X or Y percent of the total allowable catch, they know that if the total allowable catch goes up as a result of prudent management, conservation, habitat restoration, whatever it takes to make the fish population grow and prosper, their share increases and therefore the value of their share increases as well. So they become stakeholders.

LUDDEN: These ideas are widely opposed in the fishing industry. Douglas Marshall, who heads the New England Fishery Management Council, fears that if scientists are allowed to set catch limits, the stocks may rebound, but fishing communities may not.

MARSHALL: I'd think you'd see the scientists clamp down on the whole process to the point where maybe, over some 5 or 10 years, you'd have a much better balance in the ocean in terms of the abundance of species, and the variety and all that sort of thing. But I think in the meantime you'd see almost everybody in the fishery go out of business.

LUDDEN: Marshall and others also worry that quotas will change the traditional character of the industry. They predict that large corporations would buy up quotas, squeezing out smaller boats. Tony Verga of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission says quotas would also take away fishermen's independence.

VERGA: I don't think that's the entrepreneurial way of life. If you've got an idea, you promote your idea; and if you're better at it, then you're entitled to more benefits that go along with it.

LUDDEN: Environmentalists insist caps on quotas ownership could prevent corporations from taking over the business, and they point out that no fishing community can thrive without healthy fish stocks. Lawmakers are now working on amendments to the Magnussen Fishery Act. A final version is expected to be passed by the end of the year. But even a revised management plan is unlikely to solve the fisheries crisis. Other steps may be needed. Many lawmakers want the government to buy out boats. Retraining programs are already planned in New England. In all this, lawmakers have so far tread a delicate path between ensuring the health of fishing communities and the health of fish stocks. In the end, Congress may have to admit it can't do both. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden.



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