Regional Councils: Managing Fish Stocks or Just Protecting Industry?

Article excerpt

When Congress adopted the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act (FCMA) in 1976, it completely reshaped the way in which the U.S. managed its fisheries. The act (now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act) extended the limit of national jurisdiction over fisheries from 12 miles to 200, and established eight regional councils--representing New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific, the North Pacific and the West Pacific--to oversee, develop and implement regional fishery management plans.

In the years since, fisheries management in the U.S. has not been a complete failure. More than half of the known, managed, major fish species in U.S. waters are not overfished. But critics might argue that to declare that a success would be to set a very low bar; and there is also no avoiding the occasional and spectacular disasters that have occurred on the councils' watch, most notably the collapse of the groundfish stocks off New England in 1992.

A 2003 report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts argued that the regional councils contained a number of fundamental flaws.

For one thing, said the report, the councils have two mandates that are fundamentally in conflict: They decide both how many fish can be caught and who can catch them. Because larger catches are easier to divide up among competing interests, the councils' responsibility to allocate catches, the report continued, "encourages them to set lax fishery limits, undermining conservation."

Perhaps the most contentious element of the council system, and the one with which environmentalists take greatest issue, is the councils' composition. According to the Stanford report: "More than 80 percent of the citizens who are appointed to the councils represent the fishing industry." Citizen members are selected by the Secretary of Commerce of each constituent state from a list submitted by that state's governor. The FCMA stipulates that, when submitting the list, the governor must, "to the extent practicable," consult with "representatives of the commercial and recreational fishing interests of the State"; and, when selecting voting members from the list, the Secretary of Commerce must, "to the extent practicable, ensure a fair and balanced apportionment, on a rotating or other basis, of the active participants (or their representatives) in the commercial and recreational fisheries." But the act says nothing about requiring the appointment of anyone representing conservation interests or the public at large.

"It all dates back to when the councils were set up," says Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network (MFCN). "The philosophy at the time was to phase out foreign fleets and develop the U. …