Fish Perish as Conflict of Interest Snares Management Councils

WASHINGTON, DC, November 13, 2003 (ENS) - The regional fishery management councils that govern the multi-billion dollar U.S. commercial and recreational fishing industry are dominated by the industry, exempted from federal conflict of interest laws, and subject to little federal oversight, says a new report released Wednesday by three Stanford University researchers.

Sixty percent of appointed council members have a direct financial interest in the fisheries that they manage and regulate, say the authors of the report, "Taking Stock of the Regional Fishery Management Councils."

Stanford's Josh Eagle, Barton Thompson Jr., and Sarah Newkirk conducted a review of the mandates, constitution, rules, and procedures of the United States' Regional Fishery Management Councils, and surveyed members of four of the eight councils.

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Fishermen empty a trawl net on deck for sorting (Photo by Allen Shimada courtesy NOAA)
Their study, sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts, concludes that the councils have presided over the economic and biological decline of many fisheries, and that the councils are not likely to implement the kind of management necessary to prevent future declines.

"The oceans are among the nation's greatest natural resources, yet few Americans know who manages the nation's fisheries or how decisions affecting the sustainability of fisheries are made," said co-author Josh Eagle, director of the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project and lecturer in law at Stanford Law School.

The eight fishery councils were established in 1976 by the passage of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, to take primary responsibility for the management of dozens of fisheries along U.S. coasts in Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific waters.

The recent collapses of once abundant species, such as cod in New England and rockfish off the Pacific coast, have caused hardship for fishing communities across the country. In addition salmon, tuna, red snapper, lobster, and blue crab, among many other species, are overfished, and many scientists, including the report's authors, say an essential step in helping these species recover is to put an end to overfishing.

Eagle said, "With more than a third of the nation's studied fish stocks overfished and the status of many more uncertain, it is clear that we must apply standards of good government to the management of America's fisheries and place the public's interest first."

The councils opened a three day conference today in Washington, DC to educate the public, policy makers, and media on the marine fishery management process. They are presenting successful management examples by region, and current management and research initiatives.

The councils say they wish to "help bridge the gap between perception and reality regarding fisheries management" and to provide a forum for information exchange and to solicit a wide range of perspectives on future management and marine research directions.

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Josh Eagle works with the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project, a joint venture between Stanford Law School and Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station. (Photo courtesy Stanford University)
But Eagle, Thompson, and Newkirk say in their report that the councils are unlikely to solve the current problems facing the nation’s fisheries for at least three reasons.

First, council members face a conflict of interest because they must limit the number of fish that can be caught to ensure their conservation while also allocating the allowable catch among members of the industry, who may apply pressure to increase the size of their quotas.

Second, because 80 to 90 percent of appointed council members are from the fishing industry, diverse viewpoints are not fairly representated in council discussions and decisionmaking, the report states. Each council has only one environmental representative, one state official and one federal official in addition to the fishing industry members.

Congress requires federal advisory commissions to be “fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented and the functions to be performed by the advisory commission,” but the fisheries management councils are not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Finally, the split in responsibilities between the councils and the National Marine Fisheries Service removes effective accountability for the status of the nation’s fisheries, the report's authors conclude.

An example from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council based in Honolulu, reported by the "Cascadia Times," shows how the process works in practice.

In June the Secretary of Commerce appointed longline fisherman Sean Martin to a seat on the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council. Martin is also co-owner, with Jim Cook, of Pacific Ocean Producers, a fishing equipment supply company.

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Endangered leatherback turtle in Hawaiian waters (Photo by Skip Naftel courtesy NOAA)
Longlining kills endangered sea turtles when they become entangled in the 60 mile long fishing lines baited for swordfish and other commercial fish species.

On September 23, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council decided whether or not to reopen swordfishing in Hawaiian waters through which endangered leatherback turtles migrate. Biologists told the council the rule would harm 144 sea turtles per year, but on a motion by Martin, the council voted 8-5 to reopen the fishery.

The September 23 vote may also lead to violations of the Endangered Species Act. “It would authorize a far higher number of sea turtle takes than the scientific record supports,” says William Hogarth, assistant administrator of the the National Marine Fisheries Service, now known as NOAA Fisheries.

Some fisheries management councils do take action to protect fish species. On November 21, following action taken by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council and conforming action taken by the state of California, recreational and most commercial fisheries for nearshore rockfishes, shelf rockfishes, California scorpionfish (sculpin), and lingcod will close in all Pacific waters.

"In past years, anglers had more opportunities to fish for rockfish in deeper waters. This year, fishing for rockfish was limited to waters shallower than 120 feet which put greater pressure on nearshore species," explained Fred Wendell, California Department of Fish and Game nearshore fishery manager.

And some fish populations are doing well. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council released survey data in June showing summer flounder numbers had reached the highest levels ever recorded since the survey began in 1968.

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The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council conducts a stock assessment workshop on flounder and lobster in Wilmington, Delaware, 1996. (Photo by William Folsom courtesy NOAA)
"The robust recovery of the summer flounder stock is a direct reflection of the positive impacts that the management measures have had on the resource," said Dr. Christopher Moore, council deputy director. "The Council and Commission should be extremely proud of the management decisions they have made over the years to rebuild summer flounder."

Still, many members of the four fisheries management councils polled by the authors of "Taking Stock" agreed that there are problems with the current system and that these problems should be addressed.

Eagle, Thompson, and Newkirk report that more than half of the council members polled said environmental interests are underrepresented on the councils.

Roughly a third of the respondents said they had felt it unfair in one or more past instances for a fellow council member to participate in a decision in which he or she had a financial interest. A similar percentage expressed concern about decisions in which the relatives or friends of voting council members had a financial interest in the outcome.

Eagle, Thompson, and Newkirk call for changes in federal policy on fisheries management councils that would institute the same standards of "good government" that apply to other federal and state agencies charged with managing U.S. natural resources.

First, they say Congress should separate the institutional decisionmaking responsibilities for conservation and quota allocation.

To broaden council representation, Congress could require governors to submit a more diverse list of candidates, or require that nominations be made by an independent body such as the National Academy of Sciences, they recommend.

And finally, only federal fishery management exempts federal decisionmakers, the council members, from conflicts of interest. Remedies suggested by the authors include lowering the recusal threshold and prohibiting those holding financial interests in regulated fisheries from council appointment.

Barton H. Thompson Jr. is vice dean and Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law at Stanford Law School. Sarah Newkirk is an independent water law and policy consultant and most recently was a research fellow with the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project.

The Fishery Management Councils are online at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/councils/

"Taking Stock of the Regional Fishery Management Councils" can be found at: http://www.pewtrusts.com/pdf/pew_science_taking_stock.pdf

The "Cascadia Times" article, "Plundering the Pacific" is at: http://www.times.org/