Fixing our failed fisheries

Naked self-interest, ignoring warning signs of declining species, knowingly permitting overfishing, and looking the other way when accidental catches - or bycatch - severely deplete vulnerable species such as sea turtles: these are just a few of the features of the failing management system that governs the precious resources of the Pacific Ocean.

This survey of three regional fishery management councils reveals specific examples of how individual managers, the councils, and the federal agency that oversees those councils have failed the ocean. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this review is that it may be just the tip of the iceberg. Having only begun to look, who knows what the hidden, cumulative impact of 25 years of such faulty resource management may be.

And yet, with so little knowledge of these cumulative impacts, we keep fishing. Part of this has to do with demand for seafood. Part of it has to do with short-term economic interests. But part of it is a system that knows only how to harvest fish. When the

Magnuson Act was written into law, the impetus was to promote fishing as an economic force. Now, with major fishery stocks in decline and the potential for many stocks that have not been assessed to be in trouble, not to mention the corals, invertebrates and marine mammals which are also in jeopardy, we have reached a crossroads in how we will manage the ocean.

The recent prestigious, multi-stakeholder Pew Oceans Commission charts a mid-course correction. The first comprehensive review of US ocean policy in thirty years identified the very problems detailed in this report and a whole slew of other problems facing our oceans. From non-point source pollution to coastal sprawl, restoring the oceans will be a tremendous challenge.

Restoring America's fisheries, though challenging, is well within our grasp. We simply need the political will to do it. A quick look at the rapidity with which we created a department of homeland security indicates that creating a department of the oceans can be done. The stakes are high: according to NOAA Fisheries statistics, the value of commercial landings in California, Oregon and Washington in 2002 amounted to $319 million. Hawai`i totaled $52 million and Alaska topped the list at $811 million. Economically, these are valuable natural resources. Ecologically, it's clear that we really do not know that much about the ocean yet from the recent "discoveries" of deep sea, cold water corals to the complex interactions between different species of rockfish.

The first order of business is to reform the deeply flawed fishery management council system. Separating conservation decisions from allocation decisions, that is, removing the conflict of interest, is the first step. To do this - and to take the next step in creating a management system that puts conservation first (instead of commerce) and moves us

toward sustainable management - your voice is needed. As the Oceans Commission stated so clearly: "This is not a decision about us. It is about our children, and actions we must take to bequeath them thriving oceans and healthy coastlines."

 

Paul Koberstein