March 24, 2008

Debate focuses on allocating fish between commercial and recreational fishermen


A little-noticed fishery management discussion going on at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council strikes right to the core of resource management policy.

Poised beneath debate over what the South Atlantic Council calls “the draft comprehensive allocation amendment” is the question of how society can reap the maximum benefit from distribution of a limited resource.

The allocation plan will guide federal fisheries managers in deciding how to divide the total catch limit for species such as snowy grouper and king mackerel between commercial and recreational fishing sectors.

Biological scientists determine the number of fish that can be pulled from the sea without jeopardizing the health of a stock.

But, deciding how to split the harvest limit between the two fishing sectors thrusts fisheries managers into the role of social engineers.

It’s no surprise that commercial and recreational fishermen disagree over the standards that might be used to calculate distribution shares.

The two groups even don’t agree on the scope of interests that have a stake in the calculations.

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), a nationwide organization representing recreational fishermen, interprets federal fisheries law to say that allocations “must be fair and equitable to all fishermen – not to
the public at large or the national interest.”

Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, turn to that same law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and note that optimum yield from a sustainable fishery should “provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation” in respect to food production, as well as recreation.   

Commercial fishermen say the interest of seafood consumers is staked to their industry.

But, the CCA argues that the commercial harvest of striped bass and other marine species should go the way of commercial deer and duck hunting.  

“The concept that a private commercial enterprise is necessary to provide the public with the enjoyment of those resources by selling them to consumers so that they can eat them was rejected by the federal government and state wildlife managers before 1900.  There is no basis in any federal common law, any wildlife law or the constitution for such a proposition,” wrote the CCA in a position paper presented to the South Atlantic Council.

The paper describes a future where coastal population growth fuels growth of the recreational fishing industry, while the commercial fishing industry continues its “downward slide,” and asks managers to take a “forward-looking approach” to allocation that minimizes the significance of past landings by the two sectors.

The CCA believes resource allocation should be based on a comparison of the economic value of recreational fishing and that of commercial fishing.

Calculating that the recreational summer flounder fishery contributes more than eight times the value of commercial fishing to the economy, the group believes the current allocation system is not the best.

The state chapter of the anglers’ association has made a similar argument in the case of red drum management.  Anglers say their pursuit of red drum contributes more than $50 million to the state, while the price paid to commercial fishermen is about $200,000.

Commercial fisherman Michael Peele in Hatteras calls that an apple-to-oranges sort of comparison.

“The money we get paid doesn’t stay in our pockets.  It goes right back into the economy of the village and the county and the state when we buy fuel, pay for repairs, pay taxes, and make other purchases,” he says.  He also notes that strict harvest quotas restrain expansion of the commercial fishery, while recreational effort isn’t subject to hard-and-fast quotas.

Ernie Foster, captain of the Albatross Fleet charter boats in Hatteras and president of the advocacy group North Carolina Watermen United, says even a more accurate comparison of economic values would still be incomplete.

“This village is one of those places we wax poetic about – a quaint fishing community.  A lot of the discussion about allocation is really about the eradication of people in this community,” he said during a fisheries meeting in Hatteras earlier this month.

Foster argues that a comparison of economic values doesn’t answer the question of whether society is better off under one allocation system or another.

He says social and environmental costs must be factored into the equation.

“Hatteras is a commercial and charter fishing community where people are good neighbors, but it’s hard to put a numerical value on that,” says the outspoken advocate for sustainable economic development on the Outer Banks.

A new paradigm for measuring value, one that incorporates Foster’s concern about environmental quality and viable communities, is gaining a toehold with economic theorists.

Ecological economists are developing models that look at the best ways to create economic sustainability as opposed to economic growth, using units of energy rather than dollars to measure production costs.  They are also developing programs that quantify the environmental and social values that Foster talks about.

The South Atlantic Council will discuss allocation of marine resources at a committee meeting scheduled for April 8-9 at Southern Wesleyan University in North Charleston, S.C.

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