Amateur Hour in Fishery Management

John on Press Herald Post

Marine fisheries are a multi-billion dollar industry.  The New England Fishery Management Council serves, in effect, as the board of trustees for the production line and operations of this industry.

Individually, Council appointees are responsible citizens with civic pride in the fishing industry and desire to help the community thrive, or employees of the marine resource agencies of five states.  Without exception, these people serve with the best of intentions.  Collectively, however, the group would be discouraged from any corporate board room , as rank amateurs.

Amateurism was in full display when the Fishery Management Council met this week in Portland.

The problems for groundfish go back decades.  Too many boats were built to catch groundfish in the 1980, before we fully understood the limits on a sustainably managed fishery.   Managers institutionalized the problem in 1995 by qualifying four-times too many of these vessels for permits to pursue groundfish in a targeted fishery.  Meanwhile, from 1990 to 2003, managers consistently ignored or fudged scientific recommendations to curb overfishing, driving these stocks into chronic depletion.

Then, in 2003, a federal court ruling compelled managers to rebuild these stocks to scientifically derived standards within the law, by 2014.  You’ve never seen such foot-dragging.

The final stage of this court-ordered remedial action, the year-five reassessment of stock status and updating, is due for May 2009.  The Fishery Management Council this week missed a critical deadline in that process.  They stepped away from their collective responsibility under the law, because difficult decisions were outside the comfort zone of too many council members.  Again.

Real businessmen take decisive action when faced with hard choices.  In the 1990s, and at innumerable junctures since then, real business mangers would have recognized that far too many boats were chasing too few fish.  They would have placed a premium on maximizing the available opportunity growing the resource as quickly as possible.

Skillful planners would have acknowledged the disparity in capital investment and have created a master-plan to guide vessel owners on whether to invest or disinvest – a road-map for an orderly economic progression to a more desirable capital structure (we do this routinely in municipal planning).  They would have made allowances for economic diversity and communities.

The twenty-year history of groundfish management offers a bitter example.  A sustainably managed groundfish resource has potential value many time greater than its current condition.   Over the period the resource was allowed to descend into chronic depletion.  Meanwhile the industry has been saddled with an erratic, overly complex, and constantly changing management regime.  The result has been ecological and business instability

Who Owns the Fish

John on Press Herald Post


Who owns the fish in the sea? Who owns the whales?  Who owns the habitat they live in?

You do.  We all do.  Fisheries and the marine environment are a public resource trust.

The United States has jurisdiction over 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean – this exclusive economic zone extends 200-miles seaward from our coasts and the US island territories in the Caribbean and Pacific.  This ocean terrain, larger than the land area of all the 50 states combined, makes the United States the largest maritime nation in the world.  The resources of this vast area provide for our economy and are under our stewardship.  For more information see:

But for all the wealth at stake, governance of our ocean territories is poorly developed.

Maine is a maritime state – the fourth largest seafood producing state in the US.  We have a lot at stake in how fisheries are managed.  Living marine resources in federal waters (3 miles out to 200 miles) off New England are the responsibility National Marine Fisheries Service in close working relationship with the New England Fishery Management Council.  The Council is an appointed body of eighteen trustees, with fiduciary responsibility to the fish and to our nation.  The resources under its management are valued in the billions of dollars.

Blood in the Water

John on Press Herald Post


Hey!  Breaking news bulletin!  “16 out of the 21 oceanic shark and ray species that are caught in high seas fisheries are at heightened risk of extinction due primarily to targeted fishing.”

Well, actually this shouldn’t be news to anyone interested in ocean ecosystems.  Despite their reputation for ferocity, sharks are some of the most vulnerable creatures in the world.  They bear live young, have the longest gestation periods in nature (close to two-years), and produce only a few babies at a time.  Sharks are incredibly susceptible to overfishing and as the world demands more protein these various shark species are going, going…..soon to be gone.

Porbeagles, makos, blue sharks – we have them here in the Gulf of Maine.  They are oceanic sharks, meaning they don’t often come close to shore.  I’ve had a basking shark along side of a lobster boat while fishing on Jefferys Ledge – the animal was longer than the boat (42 foot).  It’s a plankton eater.

These open ocean predators are becoming relatively rare.  What we human beings have done in terrestrial environments around the planet we are also doing in our oceans, which is to relentlessly crop off those species at the top of the food-web.  It’s happening around the world, and it’s happening here in the Gulf of Maine.

Breaking the Rule

John on  Press Herald Post


My wife has a rule in our house – no talking about fish or boats after 6pm.

Good luck, honey.  Most evenings that prohibition lasts until about 6:20 and then, somehow, the conversation wanders back onto the latest boat project, or fishing, or fishery management, or some esoteric related subject.  Poor woman – she’s been listening to this for 30 years.

I remember when she first raised this defense.  We were living in Juneau, Alaska.  We were sharing a camp with another young couple, on a small lake north of town.  Mendenhall Glacier was a grand background.  Salmon berries and alders crowded the shoreline, the fir trees hung heavily with moss, and the stream behind the house running down to Auke Bay ran so thick with sockeye sometimes it seemed more fish than water.

My buddy and I had a fishing vessel repair business.  We’d spend our days replacing rotten wood with fiberglass, or repairing nets, or out on the boats during the salmon openings.  Of course when we did show up for dinner, the topic of immediate importance would be – fish.  Most specifically – salmon.

So our wives ganged up on us.  No talking about fish, or boats, until we’d socialized with them a bit.  About twenty minutes, give or take.

Eventually, Peggy and I came home to Maine.  I started fishing out of Kittery.  I became enmeshed in fishery management and was eventually appointed to the New England Fishery Management Council, on which I served for nine years.  I represented industry in conservation planning for fisheries and marine mammals.  I began working with the National Marine Sanctuary system and chaired the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary’s advisory council.

As my understanding evolved, I gravitated toward environmental advocacy and the health of our oceans.

Now, here I am 30 years later, just as obsessed with fish, where they live, how we value them, and how we value and protect our oceans.  I care deeply about the Gulf of Maine and living marine resources.  And I’m still talking about fish.

And my wife is still patiently listening, God bless her.