Who Really Makes Fishing Regulations? Fisheries Management Councils and their Scientific Advisers.

A few springs ago, I was night fishing in upstate New York when I caught a pretty decent northern pike (about 28”) on my last cast. I was excited to bring it home to make some fresh, grilled fish tacos with a mango salsa, but then I realized northern pike season opened next week, not that week, so I couldn’t keep it. While letting it go, I wondered, “why could I keep this fish next week but not this week?” I’m sure many others of you have wondered why some fishing seasons can be very specific in terms of size, location, number, or time of year.

Well, fishing regulations aren’t created arbitrarily; they are based upon the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (MSA). This act established regional fisheries management councils advised by fisheries scientists to prevent overfishing and ensure the long-term ecological and economical sustainability of our nation’s fisheries. It is perhaps the main reason why the United States has among the best managed fisheries in the entire world, but how does it work? Who better to explain this act than Dr. John Boreman, the chair of the Science Advisory Committee (SAC) for the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (MAFMC) and the former northeast director of NOAA’s Office of Science and Technology!

Map of the US fishery regions. Photo from the Fisheries Councils’ Website: http://www.fisherycouncils.org/)

Map of the US fishery regions. Photo from the Fisheries Councils’ Website: http://www.fisherycouncils.org/)

According Dr. Boreman, the MSA established regional councils, like the MAFMC, made up of fishermen, conservationists, seafood restauranteurs, and anybody else who may have a stake in fisheries (I actually ran for one of these positions!). Together, these people make decisions about fisheries management based on the SAC’s research and modeling. Their research and models include information like growth rates, age to sexual maturity, fecundity (how many eggs a fish can lay), the number of fish caught the previous year, and trends in the number of fish caught from year to year for each species that the councils manage. The SAC uses this data to determine the maximum sustainable yield of the fishery, and based on a degree of uncertainty, it recommends fishing quotas, seasons, and regulations to the councils. To prevent overfishing, the council must use the best science it has available and legally cannot set quotas higher than recommended by the SAC.

The SAC has no agenda except to provide the council with the best scientific data and models it can offer, but this can cause issues between the scientists and the fishermen. For instance, fishermen may perceive an increase in a fish population and may want the fishing quotas to increase, but the SAC may suggest keeping the quotas constant or even a decrease. Understandably, this may frustrate fishermen and cause them to hate these scientists, but they may not see the complete picture. They may be catching more fish in one location, but the overall population may still be decreasing elsewhere. Or perhaps the adult population is healthy, but they have a poor reproductive year, which would mean a decline in fish caught a few years down the road, so the SAC may recommend reducing the quotas to preemptively prevent overfishing of this poor age class.

If populations experience continued overfishing, Dr. Boreman explained, then the population may become overfished, potentially collapsing. What happens then? The MSA states that there is a mandatory 10-year period to rebuild stocks, which includes sharp decreases in quotas or even shutting down a fishery completely for 10 years. This works very well for some species, particularly those with short generation times like mackerels and herrings, and their population recovers, allowing the fishery to resume with some precautions. However, many sharks, sturgeons, and rockfishes take more than 10 years to even reach sexual maturity, so this period would be insufficient for their populations to recover.

There is a current bill that has passed the house, though, that would reauthorize the MSA and allow for flexibility in recovery plans for depleted fisheries. H.R. 200 would help the slow-growing fishes, said Dr. Boreman, by allowing recovery plans to extend more than 10 years if necessary. If a depleted population of a fast-growing species recovers before 10 years, then this bill may allow that fishery to re-open sooner.

The scientists aren’t on anybody’s side when it comes to fisheries management in the US; they aren’t trying to help fishermen take all the fish from the ocean to make greater short-term profits, and they aren’t conspiring with conservationists to leave all fish in the ocean. They are simply doing their jobs to provide the best information they can for fisheries management to ensure the long-term sustainability of the oceans. While you may not understand why a new fishing regulation is put in place, it is nonetheless important to follow it because it is to ensure that you can keep catching plenty of fish in the future.

Noah Bressman is a PhD candidate studying fish biology, behavior, and biomechanics at Wake Forest University. Below is Noah with a Northern Pike (Esox lucius), caught while ice fishing on Oneida Lake in NY to win an annual American Fisheries Society ice fishing derby!

Noah Bressman