The fish are OK

Never mind the appalling state of the world's overfished oceans, say U.S. fishery managers. They're doing the best they can, and they don't need more regulation.

Published June 19, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

There are too more fish in the sea -- and we're taking good care of them. Really.

That's the message that American marine fisheries managers are trying to send to a fish-eating, environmentally conscious public in the wake of a series of recent revelations about the sorry state of the overfished oceans.

First, a shocking report by two Canadian biologists published in a May issue of Nature found that 90 percent of the stocks of the world's biggest fish, such as tuna, swordfish and marlin, have simply been fished out. Then, in early June, the Pew Oceans Commission released a set of strongly worded recommendations calling for an overhaul of U.S. fisheries management and the creation of a new oceans agency.

The report called for separating "conservation and allocation decisions" and declared that the fishing business has a conflict of interest under the current system, in which many of the council members make their living from the same resources that they are responsible for managing sustainably.

In an attempt to dampen the political impact of the reports, the fishing industry councils are responding with their own media campaign and a barrage of press releases, including a statement from the New England Fishery Management Council and a response from the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Don McIsaac, executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries off the coast of California, Washington and Oregon, also submitted an Op-Ed piece to Salon in response to an article published on June 5.

"The Pew Oceans Commission, the Marine Fish Conservation Network, and a recent study in Nature criticize fisheries management practices, but fail to acknowledge the work being done to address widely-recognized problems," he wrote. He went on to enumerate various fisheries, such as salmon, that have suffered declines but were brought back to health. (The same points are made in the statement on the Pacific Fishery Management Council site.)

Critics of the fishing industry are unswayed by its arguments.

"I think that our point is a much more fundamental one," says Eileen Claussen, a council member on the Pew Oceans Commission. "If the councils system works the way they say it is, why are fish being overfished in the first place? We should be managing this resource so you don't go from boom to bust."

In a phone interview, McIsaac argued that the councils aren't "intentionally" promoting overfishing. Instead, the scientific information about the state of a given fish stock and the knowledge of that fish's reproductive biology is evolving, says McIsaac.

"Councils are mandated to balance conservation with socioeconomic considerations, and are required to base their decisions on the best available science," wrote McIsaac in his Op-Ed. "However, the Pacific Council agrees that improved science is needed."

"Basically, what they're doing is saying, If you cannot prove that we're overfishing then we're not going to slow down," says Mark Powell, director of fish conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. As a result, regulatory action comes when it's too late. "It's easy to prove a fishery's collapse after the fact. You just go out there, and you can't find the damn fish. There's no fish," says Powell.

The case of the Pacific Coast groundfish offers an illustrative example.

"The Council manages over 80 species of Pacific Coast groundfish, and has responded quickly to new information about groundfish stocks," states McIsaac in his Op-Ed. "For example, in May 2002, the Council learned that three species designated as overfished -- yelloweye, bocaccio and canary rockfish -- were reproducing more slowly than previously thought. The next month, the Council adopted expansive continental shelf closures to protect these species. The restrictions went into effect in summer 2002 and continue today. The Pew report acknowledges that these measures were the strictest regulations in the history of West Coast fishing."

But this account fails to mention that the National Marine Fishery Service had lost a series of federal lawsuits brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ocean Conservancy concerning the unnecessary massacre of such groundfish, which are routinely accidentally caught as "bycatch" by fishing ships hunting other targets.

The decision to restrict fishing came as a result of the "combination of their losing these lawsuits, plus the signs that the species are heading into the seabed," says Drew Caputo, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's good that they took that serious action, [but] it shouldn't have taken a series of lawsuits to do it," he says.

McIsaac says it wasn't the "hammer" of the lawsuits that led to the restrictions, but new science about the reproductive biology of some groundfish, showing that they reproduced only very sporadically -- in some cases, as rarely as every 15 years -- instead of annually.

But the Ocean Conservancy's Powell says that scientists had long been sounding the alarm about the decline of Pacific groundfish. He cited a 1985 paper by Robert C. Francis of the National Marine Fisheries Service, titled "Fisheries Research and Its Application to West Coast Groundfish Management," which says: "The U.S. west coast domestic rockfish fisheries, particularly off the Washington and Oregon coasts, are, in my opinion, most likely beyond hope."

"We knew in 1985 the basic outline of the problem," says Powell. "But Don McIsaac and others insisted on an extremely high burden of proof until they were willing to restrict fishing." There are no conservationists on the Pacific Fishery Management Council, notes Powell.

Whether the fishery councils are in fact too beholden to fishing interests to uphold conservation concerns will be further considered in the pages of the congressionally convened United States Commission on Ocean Policy report, forthcoming this fall.

And, this November, the eight regional councils will hold their first-ever conference in Washington, where they'll meet to try to address some of the issues themselves, before Congress takes action. "It is occurring in part because we knew these things would come out," says McIsaac. "Sometime in the next two years, the whole marine fisheries regulatory system is going to be the subject of congressional review, and it's very apt to be changed."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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