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Taking Stock of U.S. Fisheries Policy

By James Sanchirico and Susan Hanna

The Providence Journal

Sunday, December 26, 2005

Here's a Snapshot of the U.S fishing industry today: fleets race into ocean habitats that suffer from depleted fish stocks and stressed ecosystems, while fishermen confront stagnant incomes and increased regulatory conflicts.

Continuing this strategy is simply unsustainable: many ocean-grown food varieties -- shark, red snapper, blue crab, and cod, among other popular species -- are overfished, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of workers who depend on this industry. Despite this situation, pressures to cast the nets wider and increase the catch continue to rise.

As it stands now, U.S. fisheries are governed by policies that lack clarity and organization. Roughly 140 laws and a dozen agencies and departments have jurisdiction over marine ecosystems. Current regulations try to control every aspect of fishing, leaving a fisherman with no right of ownership over his fish until they are caught. This reality only triggers increased competition and circles back to threaten fish populations.

At this critical juncture, President Bush now has an opportunity to right the ship of fisheries management in this country.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy released its preliminary report on marine resources and a variety of ocean and coastal uses. This report marked the first time in 35 years that such a systematic and wide-ranging assessment has been conducted on this country's ocean policy. The law required the president to respond to the report last week. Several simple actions taken now in this response could dramatically improve the fisheries outlook in this country for decades to come.

First, using an Executive Order, the president could direct all fishery-management councils -- regional bodies that determine catch levels and fishery regulations -- to examine the "catch as much as I can" incentives of fishing interests and allow managers to implement guidelines to pair responsibility for ocean-ecosystem health with rights to catches. Those who use these public resources also must be held accountable for their impact on the fish stocks and ecosystem.

These guidelines might include individual fishing quotas that would guarantee all fishermen a share of the total catch, or fishing cooperatives that could decide the allocation among their fleets. Experience to date illustrates that both systems can improve the bottom line of the fishing industry and rebuild fish populations.

Both higher incomes for fishermen and healthier stocks of fish are needed to shift the focus from short-term gain to long-run sustainability.

Second, the president should direct policymakers to require that all major U.S. fisheries set hard limits on annual catches, and that these limits take into account the effects of overfishing on the ocean ecosystem. Some current approaches try to meet this need through time limits, rather than catch size limits, letting fishermen catch as much as they want during a specific period.

While this might seem to give fishermen greater freedom over their fishing habits, it can lead to the collapse of fish stocks, as it has with New England cod. Hard caps, or total allowable catches, must be combined with policies that address fishermen incentives; otherwise, the race for fish will continue unabated.

Third, the president must recognize that what benefits fishermen in the short term is not always in the best interest of the marine ecosystem. To ensure that guidelines are met without compromising fish conservation needs, the administration must stipulate that the decision-making process on ocean harvests should be overhauled to ensure that the best available natural- and social-science data are used. Some regional councils do not have functional scientific advisory panels. Separating the decision on "how many fish can be caught" from the question of "by who, when, and where" will also help to shift the focus to the long-term health of the ecosystem.

These are but three needed changes in U.S. ocean policy. However, none of these solutions requires legislative action or major institutional reorganization; they can be achieved solely through presidential leadership. Addressing these immediate needs will provide the building blocks necessary for greater change. They must be met first to restrain the race for fish and to stop the damage to the industry and the environment. Only then can longer-term, fundamental changes be implemented, and indeed succeed.

In his response to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report, President Bush can turn the tide and preserve the long-term health of our maritime resources. Getting it wrong will not only cause permanent damage to this critical ecosystem, but also will hurt the livelihoods of all those dependent upon it.


James Sanchirico is a fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and Susan Hanna is a professor of marine economics at Oregon State University.

RFF is home to a diverse community of scholars dedicated to improving environmental policy and natural resource management through social science research. Resources for the Future provides objective and independent analysis and encourages scholars to express their individual opinions, which may differ from those of other RFF scholars, officers, and directors.



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