Wednesday, February 2, 2005

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The perfect storm... of fishing regulations

A minor key in the movie (and perhaps the book -- I haven't read it) The Perfect Storm is that one reason the Andrea Gail was lost at sea is that its evil greedhead owner didn't want to save some money and not pay for upkeep on the boat. Certainly, this is a classic theme in fiction -- the poor working slobs are made to suffer because of the greed of capitalist pig-dogs.

I dredge this up because Kirsten Scharnberg has a story in today's Chicago Tribune about a more recent fishing boat accident that claimed five lives. This time, however, the villain appears to be.... excessive regulaions:

Just days before Christmas, five sailors died off the shores of this fabled New England fishing community. Seas were violent; the ship Northern Edge took on water; the sailors were lost even as wives and mothers lit the traditional candles in the windows back home for them.

Because so many fishermen have died on rough seas in this region over the years, funerals have become as much a ritual as candle-lighting. But what has been different in the case of the Northern Edge is the public outcry that has followed.

Even as federal investigators try to piece together the events that led to the region's worst fishing disaster since the 1991 sinking of the ship that inspired the book and movie "The Perfect Storm," fishermen up and down the Eastern Seaboard have speculated that they already know why the men died. Many pin the blame squarely on a new government regulation that penalizes scalloping vessels and costs them potentially tens of thousands of dollars for breaking a trip and returning to shore before catching their limit--even if they are coming back to find safe harbor from inclement weather.

"Regulations have become so rigid for our fishermen that there is no discretion left to them anymore," said Matt Thomas, the city attorney for New Bedford. "They've started to look at fishing like a science, like something they can study in a lab and a beaker, but that's not the way it works with something as volatile as the Atlantic Ocean."

In the midst of this debate, the body that oversees fishing in the region, the New England Fishery Management Council, met Tuesday in New Hampshire. In response to the uproar, the council voted to temporarily reverse the controversial rule pending a review by regulators at the National Marine Fisheries Service. For now, no penalty will be levied against fishermen who leave before catching their limit for any reason.

Regulations like the one for scallopers have become increasingly common in recent decades. Dubbed the "broken trip" rule, it was put in place to limit the number of trips scallopers make into waters that also contained high numbers of endangered ground fish, which live at the sea bottom, such as cod and haddock that inadvertently get caught in scalloping nets.

Read the whole thing -- regulation is not the only culprit, but it's a biggie. [C'mon, how bad could it be?--ed. Barney Frank thinks the regulations are excessive.]

posted by Dan on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM


You don't differentiate between excessive regulation
and fine tuning regulation. In particular, you need to understand the economics of the fishery industry.
The closure of the Newfoundland cod fishery is the
starting point for any serious comment on the fishery industry. The oceans are going through the standard "tragedy of the commons" and economists need to lead on this issue and not pander (as politicians such as Barney Frank must).

posted by: Bryan C Kennedy on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

The operative word in the piece Dan quotes is "speculated." "Fisherman up and down the Eastern Seaboard" don't know why the Northern Edge did not return to port before the weather overwhelmed them, but there happens to be a new regulation they don't like that provides a convenient explanation.

Now it is possible that it is the correct explanation. But the regulation exists as an alternative to banning scalloping altogether, not because deskbound bureaucrats got together around the water cooler one day and decided to make things more difficult for fishermen. The damage inflicted by certain fishing practices on the ocean environment -- and over time on other fishermen -- is not trivial. Every fisherman may be a conservationist, in the same way that every farmer is a good steward of the land, but depleted fisheries and soil erosion are abundant testimony to the inadequacy of good intentions.

posted by: Zathras on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

Why aren't fishermen inspired to find a new way to harvest scallops that avoids using method that are the reason they are getting penalized?

posted by: flaime on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

Before going off against "government regulation" in general you really need to understand how fisheries regulations are written. 99% of fisheries regulations are generated by industry themselves through the Council process. In this case, the industry-dominated New England Fisheries Management Council is responsible for writing all the fisheries regulations for federal fisheries in New England in the form of "recommendations" to the National Marine Fisheries Service which has little lattitude to reject or modify them unless they directly violate some other law or regulation. If the Council is writing complicated and inane regulations they are coming directly from the fishing industry representatives sitting on the Council and not from distant Federal bureaucrats.

Fisheries politics and regulations is an incredibly Byzantine world and most of the complexity results from from the fact that all sorts of competing industry groups are fighting for the same limited resources. I've worked in that arena for 15 years in various positions for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska and the North Pacific Fisheies Management Council and I still don't understand a lot of it.

I don't have any particular knowledge of that specific vessel sinking. And it may well have happened because the regulations are inflexible. But the fishing industry is perhaps more responsible than any other industry for writing its own governing regulations. So keep that context in mind.

posted by: Kent on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

No, no, they're all evil for trying to kill the cute lil' fishies!

Swim away, lil' fishies! Swim away!

posted by: fling93 loves fishies on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

Kent is right - Fishery Management Councils are the classic versions of "captured agencies", with the National Marine Fisheries Service overruling them only as a last resort. I'd take with a boulder of salt anything the Councils have to say.

I'd additionally note that ground-trawling scallop nets are the marine equivalent of clear-cutting forests - the devastation they cause to productivity on the ocean floor is obvious.

posted by: Brian S. on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

I'm not a fisheries expert, but the "fishermen speculate" line immediately set off my alarm bells. As did several other things, including the "may cost tens of thousands of dollars".

I did grow up in New England, where I got to watch several local fisheries collapse during the late '70s and '80s. Fishermen and those immediately dependent upon them unanimously blamed (1) foreign competition and (2) government regulation. This is not a new trope in that region.

Barney Frank: Dan, go and look at a map of Frank's congressional district. There are some fishermen there, yes.

Doug M.

posted by: Doug Muir on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

You call it excessive regulation, maybe.

But, I would be more likely to define it as inflexible regulation.

If there is a problem of the commons some method of limiting fishing is necessary.

I do not know if the article you read made the point, but after this boat was lost they did modify the regulations. Previously, the number
of days and when they would be were set. Now, they will allow fishing days to be shifted if bad weather makes it too bad to go out on one of the set days.

posted by: spencer on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

The basic "problem" in New England fisheries and elsewhere is overcapitalization. There's way too many little boats fishing on too few fish.

But a majority of fishermen typically oppose "market-based" solutions such as the issuance of individual fishing quotas based on fishing history because a majority of fishermen are marginal players and only a fairly small minority within any fishing fleet are the real "highline" operators who can really out-compete the rest. The smaller marginal operators would rather maintain a limited marginal fishery in which they are free to operate in a limited marginal way, whereas the larger more efficien operators generally would prefer individual quotas that they could acquire.

The result is regulations like the days at sea limits in New England that appear quite harsh because are trying to divide up too few fish among far too many boats. Or their counterpart in the Northwest which is a complicated system of trip limits for each species that leads to wasteful bycatch issues because no fishermen can catch fish in a mixed species fishery in exact proportion to the trip limit quotas for each species.

Bottom line? The fishing industry is incredibly ineffcient and deliberately so because there are so many marginal family-based operators who insist on maintaining the status quo so they can continue to muddle along in their chosen lifestyle.

It's like the small family farm in the great plains, except that small family farms are not protected by government regulation in the same way that fisherment are. Whole vast regions of the plains are rapidly becoming depopulated as agriculture becomes increasingly mechanized and corporate. Thousands of small farming communities are becoming ghost towns. Many of the regulations implemented by the fisheries councils such as days at sea and trip limits are really the equivalent of trying to save the family farm by setting strict limits on the amount of acreage that each farm can own and strict horespower limits on each farmer's tractors.

posted by: Kent on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

Kent -- very good comment

posted by: spencer on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

There are some good comments, but still, noone has answered the question of why fishermen aren't trying to find new, more environmentally friendly (thus regulation friendly) ways to harvest their chosen fisheries? Fishermen are among the groups most wedded to traditional methods of work, even though these methods are no longer economically competitive or environmentally feasible. Yet, I know that there are some fairly smart fishermen out there. Why aren't they trying to find new ways to do what they do that will make them more competitive and keep them from running afoul of regulation?

posted by: flaime on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]


There is more gear research and innovation going on than you might imagine. But it's really not as simple as expecting fishermen to do it for themselves in the context of a competitive fishing season.

Most of the gear research is being conducted by various government and university research organizations and a lot of it is government funded through the Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program administered by NOAA until Bush robbed those funds to pay for the NMFS budget:

The Sea Grant program is also responsible for a lot of that type of research:

But it's not very realistic to expect fishermen themselves to do much innovation in the context of a competitive fishery. They typical fisherman has a limited number of days to get out and harvest fish to earn a living, make their boat payments, pay their crew, and put food on the table. They are going to use the most effective legal methods at their disposal to catch as much fish as possible in that limited window of time.

Fishing gear research is a very costly and time-consuming undertaking. You might need several boats fishing side-by-side with different gear variations in order to scientifically test the effectiveness of different types of gear. And there's no legal way to test innovative gear that doesn't meet current gear regulations during the course of a regular fishing season. Likewise, fishermen are not free to just toss any new type of gear on their boat and go out to test it when the fishing seasons are closed. Otherwise there would be endless unregulated "testing" of gear happening 365 days/year and the oceans would be depleted.

The way that experimental fishing happens is the following. Some organiation or industry group develops an experimental fishing proposal to test a new type of gear or fishing technique. They will write up their proposal in a detailed submission that gets carefully reviewed by NMFS scientists and then reviewed by the relevant fishery management Council where the public is allowed to comment on the proposal. Applicants often spend quite a bit of time going back and forth with NMFS scientists to develop an effective research design for their experiment. As part of the proposal, the applicants need to indicate how much time and/or fish they will need to harvest outside of the regular fishing season in order to conduct their gear experiments. And they are generally required to carry full time NMFS observers during the course of the experiment in order to collect unbiased data. Finally, applicants are generally required to submit and present a report on their findings to NMFS and the Council when their study is completed. Because fish set aside for experimental fishing are not available for commercial harvest by the rest of the fleet (otherwise there could be overfishing), the Councils and NMFS are generally quite careful to make sure that when experimental fishing does occur, it is carefully reviewed and of expected benefit to the industry.

This is a long and time-consuming process but it's really necessary to ensure that: (1) unregulated fishing doesn't occur in the name of gear research, and (2) when portions of a public resource are allocated to fishermen in order to conduct a study, that study is done properly and the results are made available to the public.

In any event, I personally reviewed a variety of industry-sponsored experimental fishing projects in
Alaska that were conducted for a variety of reasons such as (1) testing excluder devices in trawl nets to exlude crab and halibut from bottom trawl nets,(2) testing of various streamer devices to prevent seabirds from getting entangled in longline fishing gear, (3) testing of video equipment to identify fish species on longline vessels, (4) testing of various waste refining technologies to extract protein from fish processing waste and so on. In the Gulf coast I know that NMFS and industry have spent a lot of time and money testing devices to exclude sea turtles from shrimp trawls. I could go on and on.

To some extent, these sorts of efforts have been curtailed in recent years due to budget cutbacks at the federal level and what I think was a lack of interest in Ocean science on the part of both of the last two presidents.

Does that answer your question?

posted by: Kent on 02.02.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

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