National Ocean and Fisheries Policies: Trickle Up or Trickle Down

By Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science and Policy Coordinator

For NAMA's Newsletter: November 20, 2009

“Fire! Aim! Ready!” A quote attributed to Gloucester fisherman Vito Giacalone in reference to fisheries management in New England, handily describes the processes to develop national policies and their regional implementation strategies -- “Fire! Aim! Ready!”  Without a carefully selected target, ‘ready’ and ‘aim’ efforts are useless anyway, and we are left with firing at random with no guarantee that the intended targets will be reached.  A chaotic battleground is hardly new for fisheries, but we would like to hope new policies and management under the Obama Administration can move away from that scene rather than perpetuate it.

The current undertakings by the NOAA Catch Share Task Force and the White House Ocean Policy Task Force are meant to recommend and publicly debate federal blue-prints to guide the construction of regional plans that will effectively and sustainably coordinate the use of the ocean and its resources, including fisheries.   Yet these planning processes are going along at the same time as regional management decisions are being fired off.  Questions remain about whether regional management will have to change yet again to be in line with US policy as it develops.  Big questions for coastal communities are: Who will benefit and why? And, how will the policies be imposed?

NOAA’s Catch Share policy for federal fishery management was promised in September and has yet to be released.  By all accounts, while insisting that Catch Shares are not the only management option, the policy will strongly urge regional fisheries management councils to adopt them as the cornerstone of their management strategy.  In fact, while the policy remains veiled and unavailable for public comment, workshops are being held to instruct the Councils on how to implement Catch Shares, with the admitted goal of reducing the size of the fishing fleet.   Will Catch Share management be a done deal even before the public has the opportunity to comment on a national policy? That is the kind of process that leads to demonstrations such as the one held by fishermen in front of the NMFS offices in Gloucester last month.  Policies and management decisions are not always going to be popular with everyone, but disappointment, controversy, and hardship could be lessened by following the simple rules:  Listen.  Acknowledge, Discuss. Explain. Compensate.  In August, NAMA and a number of our allies submitted joint comments to the Task Force on how and under what circumstances Catch Share management could or should be utilized. (Download the joint comments here)

The Ocean Policy Task Force (coordinated by the White House Council on Environmental Quality) is addressing a broader policy that includes all current and potential activities and resource use in the ocean.  This multiagency group took their public show on the road with hearings held in six regions this fall.  While this was going on, the first piece of the ocean policy was released as a draft open for public comment.   The hearings were also intended to address marine spatial planning, which is to be the topic of the second part of the Ocean Policy to be released for public comment sometime.  With restrictions of 2 minutes per person at the lone east coast hearing in Providence, Rhode Island little could be said, so numerous written comments have been submitted as well.  NAMA submitted a letter commenting on the Draft Interim Policy; and the national Marine Fish Conservation Network, of which NAMA is a member, has submitted recommendation on marine spatial planning.  NAMA also looks forward to joining our New England allies in commenting on the draft policy once it is released.

As these national policies are developed and then implemented - or implemented and then developed as the case seems to be -  we hope the ultimate goal is to maintain healthy marine ecosystems and healthy coastal communities for generations to come, and not to maximize the profits of those who most efficiently exploit ocean resources.

We must have the right answers to some big questions, such as:

  • Who will make the decisions?  Will democratic principles prevail?
  • Who wins and who looses?  Do principles count more than dollars or less?
  • Who keeps fishing and who is driven out, and how is that done?
  • Will losses be acknowledged and honored?  Will respectful options be offered?
  • Will communities be part of or victims of the solution?
  • How will new policies treat marine ecosystems? How will they treat people?
  • Will the scales of resource use and resource management be right?
  • How will we use biological science, social science, and traditional knowledge?
  • Can we say no to power and money?
  • Can we say yes to small voices and community vitality?
  • What do we say to future generations?  Will we be proud of our legacy?

Angela Sanfilippo of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association said to the Ocean Policy Task Force (October 24, 2009 in Providence, RI),  “Where have you been?  We’ve been waiting for you!”   But she also wondered aloud whether they were here to truly help coastal fishing communities that are built on centuries of tradition and represent the best option for long term protection of the marine ecosystem and resources, or to roll over them for the interests of extractive, multi-national corporate interests ready to take aim at the ocean resources for short them gains.

That still remains to be seen.