Monday, June 30, 2008

New England fisheries and the democratic process

Last week Andrew Rosenberg who teaches marine sciences at the University of New Hampshire delivered a chilling message: good democratic processes are working, not only to prevent some socialistic regulator from destroying the fishing industry, but also to ensure that fish stocks cannot be preserved under the related pressures of overfishing and climate change. Democracy is working; sustainability is suffering. Local fishing communities are going to experience undesired changes and there is not much that can be done to stop the process.

At least that's what I made of Rosenberg's talk in Chilmark, Mass., sponsored by the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund. Since he's a very smart guy with a background the pulling and hauling that is resource management at the National Marine Fisheries Service, he used much more cautious language. He avoided the word "regulate" with great care and effort, focusing on the benefits of various policies rather than the constraints they create. But this hard summation seems to have been the nub of it.

I took a few notes on his conclusions which I'll share here, amplified with direct quotations from an article in Nature [.pdf] to which he referred during his talk.
  • It's time to stop engaging with arguments about whether fishery declines (to as low as 5 percent of 19th century populations in some species) have happened because of overfishing or global warming. The decline in fish stocks is real. The unwillingness of scientists to overspeculate about causation impedes remedial action: "Uncertainty undermines political will in environmental decision making. ... Emphasizing what we don't know often drowns out what we do know."
  • Both fish populations and the fishing industry will react to regulation rapidly; we can help the fish recover their numbers by measures such as limiting days fishing and closing some areas, but the fishing industry and recreational anglers will adapt to regulation to maximize what they can take.
  • Rigid, complex regulations merely create incentives for fishermen to develop ways to observe letter of the law while skirting its intent. And aroused fishermen will excel at using the democratic process to protect themselves.

    Political decision making inevitably leans towards minimizing the impacts of policies on those constituents who are most affected. The public cares about the general outcome, such as saving whales, but individuals are unlikely to change their political view or support a public official because of local issues such as catch quotas or protected areas; fishermen will because the issue is immediate and vital to them.

  • The flush days when fish off New England and Georges Bank seemed unlimited are never going to return. Whether because of decimation of fish populations or because of regulation to make catches of fish sustainable, fishing operations and the communities that have lived around fishing will contract and consolidate.
That last point is the sad reality for the good people of the little port of Menemsha whose concern for their fishing economy prompted the lecture series. See this article, for a cogent account of their fears that Menemsha will succumb to "the tide that has transformed working harbors along the East Coast into upscale marinas."

So why in the world am I writing about fish and fishing here? I don't know from fish! But I do know that the problems caused by the ability of constituencies with very particular needs to overwhelm the general welfare are going to be the challenge of representative democracy as the globe faces climate change. And if we don't want authoritarian answers -- like, for example, China's one child policy -- we are going to have to come up with solutions that somehow hear all, yet satisfy many. If we don’t, we'll live with outcomes that satisfy no one.

Some of the working fishing fleet in Menemsha harbor.


Jane R said...

I wonder if this was the guy who was on NPR (I think on "Here and Now") today. Talked all about Gloucester and the new sad state of fishing. I'm going to go look it up.

Jane R said...

Nope, but related:

AUTHOR MARK KURLANKSY: Cod, cannoli, and Cape Ann. In his new book "The Last Fish Tale," Mark Kurlansky chronicles the storied past of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which he calls "America's oldest fishing port and most original town." Gloucester, once a haven for writers and artists like T.S. Elliot, Winslow Homer, and Charles Olson, can now barely support a part-time fishing fleet due to overfishing, ground trawling, and government regulations. Kurlansky says that Gloucester now risks becoming what so many other old fishing ports have already become: a tourist trap.

Google "Here and Now" (WBUR show but broadcast on other stations too, like our local one here in NC) and you'll find the show from today. I found the paragraph above there.

Complements or overlaps with your news/feature item.

janinsanfran said...

According to Rosenberg, Gloucester is a fishery success story, saved by the recovery, after regulation was imposed, of the scallop industry.

Went there a few years ago. Kind of a sad spot, once so prosperous.

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