It’s All Out of Balance

Authors of the Magnuson-Stevens Act created management counsels, peopled by scientists, conservationists, and fishermen, to oversee fish stocks found off the country’s coasts
The statue at Montauk Point remembers fishermen lost at sea. Many believe the fishing industry is now in danger of being lost to regulations handed down from Washington, D.C. Russell Drumm

    I was standing on Turtle Hill on Sunday about noon in front of the Montauk Lighthouse and beside the Lost at Sea Memorial looking down on eight seals close to shore, some floating on their backs, others with just their heads out of water looking shoreward at the few human visitors.

    Johnson Nordlinger, the assistant site manager for the Lighthouse Museum, said she watched the seals surfing the day before, hitching rides on the swells rounding the point. Fishing, surfing, equally expert at both activities, and with no friction between “user groups.” Eating when hungry, wasting nothing. No need for industry, conservation a natural thing.

    Back in about 1974, I think it was, I worked as a deckhand on the Joey, an offshore lobster boat. Its captain, Dave Krusa was, and is, a master mariner and ingenious fisherman. The body of federal fishing laws now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act was in the process of being written. Foreign fishing boats were about to be kicked outside a new 200-mile territorial limit.

    Unlike the foreign industry, our domestic fleet was comprised of relatively small, owner-operated boats that lived and died upon the altar of supply and demand, with few regulations. The government took pains to help “capitalize” the domestic industry with low-interest loans and grants. The fleet grew. Captain Krusa strongly believed the industry would self-regulate in a Darwinian sort of way. If too many fish were being caught by too many fishermen, then those with less experience and expertise would fall by the wayside, allowing stocks to rebuild naturally.

    Authors of the Magnuson-Stevens Act created management counsels, peopled by scientists, conservationists, and fishermen, to oversee fish stocks found off the country’s coasts. The new regulations would control fishing effort while taking into account the economic well-being of fishing communities.

    Since 1976, when the Magnuson-Stevens Act went into effect, both Captain Krusa’s regulation by natural selection and the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s promised balance between controlling harvests and protecting fishing communities have gone by the board.

    To be fair, the job has become extraordinarily complex, in large part because fish are hard to count, but also because the regulatory machinery, which includes government scientists, battling user groups, powerful conservation groups, and industry representatives, is broken. The result is a wasted resource and damaged communities.

    “If you think Obamacare has problems . . .” was the way Scott Lang introduced the topic of broken bureaucracy before a gathering of commercial fishermen at the Inlet Seafood Restaurant in Montauk on Friday. Mr. Lang is the former mayor of New Bedford, Mass., and the secretary of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries, an organization whose chairman of the board is Barney Frank, the former longtime Massachusetts congressman.

    Mr. Lang was joined at Inlet by the group’s C.E.O., Brian Rothschild, professor of marine science and former dean of the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Also serving on the Center’s board of directors is Montauk’s own Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, who put Friday’s program together, and, in the words of Mr. Lang, planted the center’s flag in Montauk. Although Friday’s meeting drew commercial fishermen, Montauk’s recreational fishing fleet has also been hurt by regulations that many feel continue to grow more draconian.

    The message of Mr. Lang and Mr. Rothschild was simple: The Magnuson-Stevens Act does not have to be re-authorized — a process now underway in Congress — it has to be rewritten. Mr. Lang praised Ms. Brady for “tracing the lineage,” following the money from powerful conservation groups to the creation of lopsided policy, a connection that had facilitated inaccurate science and removed the components of the original national standard that protected the economies of fishing communities.

    “There is no reason we cannot have a conservationist system based on transparency. We are going to have a [National Marine Fisheries Service] that’s transparent, that reforms from within. It’s the key issue in this year’s reauthorization,” Mr. Lang said. “The intent of Congress was a balance.” He stressed the importance of vastly improving the science of counting fish. “We have to have the science.”

    Professor Rothschild boiled down the Magnuson-Stevens Act to three national standards: “Don’t overfish,” obtain the “best science,” and “take into account the social fabric” of fishing communities. “We want optimum yield balanced with the needs of the community,” something he said current policy is not permitting, but which is possible given the facts.

    Dr. Rothschild said that the total allowable catches of all the regulated species that make up the Northeast fisheries add up to 140,000 tons per year, while current regulation permit only 35,000 tons to be harvested. “We are wasting fish, and losing tens of millions of dollars.” He said that what is being called “the best available science” is woefully inaccurate. “We are committed to the reauthorization not going forward without rewriting. We have to rewrite it, and we need a national debate that will show how wrong management is,” he said.

    Back to the Lighthouse, the seals, and the statue. Times change. The statue shows a fisherman in his boat hauling on a rope. It’s dedicated to those lost at sea. Where will the statute stand that’s dedicated to fishermen lost in Washington?

    As for the seals, they were once a relatively rare sight around here. They continue to increase in number much to the chagrin of surfcasters who watch them chase fish from their lures and inshore netters who haul their gear only to find their catch bitten in half. Seals will survive. It seems when it comes to balancing industry and community they are fitter than we.