Testing the Limits of Fishery Management

by Laurie Schreiber

Eric Schwaab, the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Our bureaucracy is often driven by process and protocol rather than by mission and outcome. Any large organization that faces the type of work we face, should take a step back on occasion, (to) evaluate its system, …processes, (and) its priorities.” L. Schreiber Photo

The National Marine Fisheries Service will soon begin an extensive review of the agency’s management process. The review will begin with the agency’s operations in New England and will expand to other regions across the nation, NMFS chief Eric Schwaab told the New England Fisheries Management Council at their Sept. 28-30 meeting in Newport, R.I.

Schwaab told the council that, since he was appointed to his current position eight months ago, much of his time has been taken up by the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “At this point, while the event is not over, we’re moving from the response phase to what will likely be a longer-term but, hopefully, more predictable restoration down there,” Schwaab said.

Schwaab said the shift has freed him to concentrate on other matters. Last week, he said, he was in New England, meeting with fishermen and community leaders.

“In addition to the oil spill, these have been particularly challenging times for the councils – for the New England council in particular – and for the agency, as we have worked to realize the promise of the 2006-2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act,” Schwaab said. “The aggressive deadlines established there – to end overfishing, to rebuild stocks, to put in place catch limits and accountability measures, and to stabilize these fisheries on a sustainable basis – do have great promise, but have also required significant work on the part of the councils, significant sacrifices on the part of fishermen and fishing communities and, I think, particularly difficult work as we have worked to balance that transition and to balance the promise of sustainable fisheries with the particular economic challenges we face around the country at this point of time.”

The challenges of striking a balance between the need to achieve sustainability in the fisheries while also maintaining viable fishing communities, said Schwaab, “are testing the limits of our collective system.”

In response, Schwaab said, NMFS agreed to a suggestion from NEFMC chairman John Pappalardo to conduct a review of the entire agency system as it grapples with the work involved in implementing the new management approaches.

In a December 2009 letter to United States Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Pappalardo wrote: “The implementation of the reauthorized Magnuson Stevens act has highlighted the urgent need to improve the fisheries management process throughout the nation. I write to ask for your help in implementing a visionary pilot in New England that is a necessary first step in making these critical improvements.”

The changes in Magnuson, wrote Pappalardo, have placed additional demands on the National Marine Fisheries Ser- vice’s Northeast Regional Office and its Northeast Science Center, as well as on the NEFMC, “and it has become clear that our region’s bureaucracy is unable to efficiently meet its expanded obligations.” Pappalardo called for the evaluation and improvement of how each component in the system operates and interacts. Communication and coordination between the institutions have hitherto been a challenge, he wrote.

“Additionally,” he wrote, “our bureaucracy is often driven by process and protocol rather than by mission and outcome.” Pappalardo proposed that the review include extensive interviews with leadership and staff of each organization and well as with a wide range of fishery stakeholders, with an eye toward understanding their view on the performance of the current system and suggestions for reform. Schwaab told the NEFMC that he agreed with Pappalardo’s assessment.

“Any large organization that faces the type of work we face, that has the complexity and size of participants and engagements that we have, should take a step back on occasion, should evaluate its system, should evaluate its processes, should evaluate its priorities. And that is really what we are talking about,” Schwaab said.

Schwaab said the review will be initiated in New England by mid-October, once the services of an independent contractor are procured. The review will then be expanded to other regions, he said. “We think the lessons we learn in New England can ultimately be applied across the country,” Schwaab said.

The contractor will conduct the study in two phases, he said. The first phase will consist of a series of extensive interviews among participants in the fishery management system. These will include members of NEFMC, staffers with the regional office and science center, fishermen and other representatives and industry leaders in fishing communities.

Leading the review will be Preston Pate, a member of NEFMC’s counterpart in the mid-Atlantic region, the Mid-Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council.

Phase 2, said Schwaab, will involve narrowing the areas of inquiry to specific concerns and possible resolutions. “We expect to complete the process in six to 12 months,” said Schwaab. Pate said he expected the review to involve telephone and focus group interviews, paper-based and internet surveys, and further contacts with the respective parties.

“I fully suspect that, at the end of the first phase, there will be an opportunity to come back to this group and discuss findings and get feedback on what the priorities might be from your perspective, and what aspect of the program needs to be looked at in more detail,” Pate told the NEFMC. “My approach to this is that it be very transparent, to include all the interested parties, all the major players. I look forward to and fully expect candor.”

Among the possible outcomes, said Schwaab, could be the need to augment NMFS’ resources. The Magnuson Act reauthorization has resulted in a workload that was not fully anticipated, he said.

The new sector system in the groundfish fishery is a significant case in point, said Schwaab.
The sector system was implemented as a means to give fishermen more flexibility and allow them to find innovative means to harvest healthy fish stocks while avoiding overfished stocks. “I think we’ve had some success,” said Schwaab. “But we still have continuing challenges.”

Part of the challenge, he said, has been the difficulty that managers, scientists and fishermen have had in communicating about the issues. “The issues and questions around science get rolled together around the issues and questions around the management decisions we make, get rolled together with policy framework,” Schwaab said. “The most effective way for us to solve problems and communicate about the choices before us is to tease them out.”

The conversation must be transparent and honest, Schwaab said.

“We need to talk about the potential errors and variables,” he said. “Then we can have some kind of effective conversation based on a shared understanding of the realities we’re dealing with – the management strategies of getting there, who wins, who potentially loses in the process, and what Magnuson says about flexibility and how it flows into policy.”

He later added: “It’s not enough to say that sectors, as a whole, are performing better, when we know that there are people struggling to get by. We have to continue to work on that. We continue to look closely to provide a little more maneuvering room and we continue to take additional actions. It continues to be, I think, a fine line that we all walk to try to help fishermen get through the short-term economic challenges without compromising the long-term re- building requirements.”

NEFMC member David Preble said the management review will be seminal for resolving some of the problems in the fishery management system.

“Marine management,” said Preble, “is inherently a highly contentious issue.” This is largely due, he said, to the widely divergent cultural approach inherent in the management side of the system, compared with the science side. “Science,” said Preble, “involves a continuous stream of information, while management is an episodic event.”

“Scientists, by nature, tend to be cautious,” Preble said. “They want to verify their data. Managers, on the other hand, have to grab the available data and run with it. Their idea is, ‘Let’s take what we have and we can tweak it later when we get an update.’ We have to accept the fact that there’s a cultural divide and it results in two completely different approaches to the flow of information.” Schwaab agreed.

“The culture of science is the competition among ideas: One idea replaces another and there’s perpetual competition in the search for ultimate fact,” Schwaab said. “Whereas in the policy arena, it’s about the compromise of ideas. I don’t know exactly what we do about it, but it’s important to recognize.”


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