Fishery Management: At the Table or On the Menu?

March 29, 2021
Heather Munro Mann

“If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”  That’s a common saying in the fishing industry, but what does it mean to be at the table?

Federal fisheries management is complex. The Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) dictates the laws by which federal managers must adhere. Originally passed in 1976, the MSA created the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and abolished foreign fishing within that zone which is out to 200 nautical miles from shore. The MSA also established eight regional fishery management councils. The councils allow for transparent, stakeholder-driven processes as they consider a whole host of management actions on which to make recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). 

NMFS is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.  NMFS determines whether the council recommendations meet the ten national standards of the MSA and whether or not to implement the recommendations. The secretary of commerce and the heads of NOAA and NMFS are all political appointees and hence they change with each change in administration.

MTC Vessels fish groundfish and Pacific whiting off the West Coast and pollock, cod and groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. These federal fisheries are under the jurisdictions of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and North Pacific Fishery Management Council, respectively. Each of these councils meets five times annually and the meetings last for several days.

These bodies also have several advisory committees that meet either in between council meetings or simultaneously with meetings.  In the current virtual environment, a council meeting including advisors meeting simultaneous can last approximately two weeks each.  Councils are made up of voting members from the states within its boundaries as well as various stakeholder representatives who are appointed by the secretary of commerce.  Governors are supposed to nominate individuals for council seats based on their expertise and experience- in reality though, this is a political process. Instead of choosing the best person for the job, political pressures can result in partisan nominee lists.

In the current process to fill seats on the Pacific Council, the states of California and Washington have nominated people who have no experience in the Pacific Council arena and who have never even attended a Pacific Council meeting. It is my belief that this is the worst kind of politics.

Federal management through the Council process can move at a glacial pace. Because this is a transparent process it involves many people from all perspectives – commercial and recreational industries, representatives from all legal gear types, tribal representatives, environmentalists, scientists and even the general public. The federal rule-making processes are cumbersome and lengthy but transparent and stakeholder-driven. 

I attend all Council meetings on behalf of MTC in both regions. In addition to my involvement, MTC members routinely provide public comment in written and oral form on different topics. I sit on advisory panels in each region – I’m on electronic monitoring committees in both areas and I sit on the North Pacific’s Advisory Panel

In order to avoid being on the menu, MTC sits at many tables to ensure that our members are well-represented. It is challenging and rewarding work.