This is a surprisingly complex story, dealing with very complex issues–environmental, economic, political, social–and just plain human.Commercial fishing has a long history in the United States, but it has only been a regulated industry for a few decades. Federal regulation dates to 1976 with the passage of the original Magnuson-Stevens Act.
I have written about some aspects of this subject earlier, for other publications, and have been generally familiar with the issues since the late 1980s, when I was editor of Oceans magazine (no relation to Oceana).But this time, it took several months of reading and telephoning to begin to get a handle on U.S. ocean fishing policy, and to narrow the scope of this story to a focus on how the NOAA Fisheries eight Regional Fishery Management Councils actually go about the business of regulating commercial fishing in U.S. territorial waters (that is, out to 200 miles from shore). Even within that focus, this remains a nuanced story, a study in shades of gray, not in blacks and whites.
It would be pretty easy, for instance, to paint commercial fishermen solely as relentless exploiters who are determined to catch every last fish in the sea. But certainly the ones I interviewed are not that stupid, not that short-sighted. Sure, they want to compete successfully with each other and catch enough fish to make a profit. But with so much money tied up in fishing boats and equipment and federal permits, and so much personal effort and history invested in their work, they know perfectly well that fishing must, in the long haul, be conducted in a sustainable way.
Similarly, the NOAA scientists are professionals of good will who are doing their best to understand the resource–the fish in the sea–and to make recommendations that will result in sustainable catches and will end overfishing.
But everyone in this business, including the Regional Council members, is caught up in a flawed legal framework, with regulations that constitute a ponderous and imperfect set of tools to regulate an extractive industry–in which no one really knows exactly the extent of the resource (the fish) and how to sustain it. Some important aspects of fishing, like recreational saltwater fishing, are poorly understood and scarcely regulated. And as things now stand, there is very little accountability in the system; Councils can — and do — flout the scientific recommendations with impunity.
Some legislative actions are really needed to clarify our big-picture approach to the health of our oceanic waters. And even some minor (federal) legislative tinkering would help, but with the present cast of characters in positions of power in the House and Senate, there is not a lot of reason for optimism about commercial fishing.
One ray of hope is that in recent years, several thoughtful and well-grounded critiques of the industry and of our whole regulatory approach have appeared and may provide a foundation for change.