Commentary: Repairing the Fishing Holes

Environmental Commentary by Liza Field

You can catch some good news from the planet these days. It just requires casting your info-net down below the turbid political froth to a deeper level of reality.

There you can find that, despite our nation's political divides, Plato’s and Jefferson’s old common-good ideal of cooperation still works.

In fact, it nets a good harvest for all parties—businesses, whole industries, consumers and the biosphere.

One happy example exists along the mid-Atlantic coast.

Here, fishermen historically thronged, for centuries, to reap catches of prized supper-table and seafood-market species. Fishing and the tourism it created constituted major industries, with entire communities built around them.

But by the 1990s, stocks were depleted from years of overfishing and the huge bite it took from the marine food web. Mid-Atlantic scup numbers dropped to 4 percent of viable levels, summer flounder to 15 percent.

Because it left so little to catch, the unrestrained and disorganized fish fest had also gnawed a big hole in tourism.

The Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, created to address the overfishing problem along U.S. coasts, proved little help.

With loopholes big enough to sail ships through, it netted zero improvement in fish stocks. Instead, increasing scarcity only intensified fishing efforts and exacerbated the stark decline.

Finally, the legislation got a sufficient net-mend in 2006, emerging from Congress as the triumphantly bipartisan Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act (or MSA).

The act’s firmer restraints have yielded remarkable progress for lucrative species like black sea bass, summer flounder, bluefish and butterfish (these four alone collectively provide the mid-Atlantic with about $570 million a year in direct economic benefits).

That you probably haven’t heard about this success indicates less about its newsworthiness than a media preference for disasters and the noisier anti-regulatory wars. But it would surely be a welcome headline that U.S. fish populations are rebounding, even as those of other nations are in severe decline.

Generating this good news wasn’t effortless.

Florida fisherman George Geiger, a retired Army officer, long annoyed his fellow fishermen by pushing for cooperation with the MSA’s stricter catch limits.

Serving three terms on his South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Geiger finally convinced other members that self-restraint for the common good would end up benefiting—not harming—each interest.

Today, Geiger is proud that the dwindled South Atlantic black sea bass “is finally making a recovery after more than two decades.”

The bass has increased not only in population and reproductive potential, but average size. The other fishermen are no longer complaining.

To the north, another angler has been running fishing charters off the New York Harbor for 11 years.

When he started, former Coast Guard member John McMurray said, there was no point in fishing for the prized black sea bass or summer flounder. “You weren’t going to put together good catches back then—the size and numbers just weren't there.”

Because the 2006 MSA has allowed these species to recover, McMurray said, “the overall impact is that there are more fish around than ever.”

This doesn't mean every fisherman realizes why limits should continue.

“Some people still don't understand why they can’t keep more and more,” McMurray said. “But if you do that and open it back up, it’s just going to go back to the way it was.”

The immediate urge to “open it back up,” in fact, is reversing a tide against the 2006 legislation, which is up for renewal this year.

It’s already facing a battle in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, where Chairman Doc Hastings has proposed a draft re-authorization bill far slacker than the 2006 version.

The draft legislation allows industry players and fishery management councils more “flexibility” in determining catch limits, allowing them to be based more on economic winds and less on marine science.

Geiger, who testified before the fisheries panel of the committee in 2011, thinks re-opened loopholes would spawn unnecessary bad news, when the good news resulting from collective effort had just begun.

“Improvements in abundance are due to successful, science-based management,” he said. “Now is not the time to backpedal and return to the (earlier) ineffective management practices that … resulted in depleted stocks.”

Environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana and Ocean Conservancy agree, and recommend that citizens weigh in.

Hastings’ committee is still requesting public comments on the draft bill.

Anglers, grandparents, seafood lovers, beachcombers and anyone else interested in common-good efforts (and keeping good effort common) can read it, hear archived testimony on the issue and/or submit comments at

Liza Field, a teacher, writes from Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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