Peter Shelley is the Director of the Maine Advocacy Center at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, Massachussettes. He was the principal architect and current director of CLF's Marine Resources Project. Peter also has been a long-time member of CLF's senior staff management group.


Why is the Conservation Law Foundation (and others) suing NMFS again?

The current round of lawsuits reflects the fact that there were major changes put into law by Congress several years ago that were intended to improve the way fisheries were managed in the future, so that we didn't run into these never-ending crises that we've been facing for the last 20 years in the American fisheries. And the suits reflect the fact that many of us believe that the fishery managers and the National Marine Fisheries Service didn't get the message from Congress and now need to be told by courts what their jobs are.

What specifically is the message from Congress? What is the Sustainable Fisheries Act calling for that they are not doing?

I think the critical word in that legislation is 'sustainable.' American fisheries have gone up and down like a roller coaster for several hundred years. It has been a resource that has been poorly managed for the long-term and as fisheries have crashed, fishermen go to new fisheries. And as a result we're not getting the maximum benefits out of our oceans, either economically or ecologically that we should.

When we talk about a sustainable fishery we're talking about one where removal rates by fishing are set at levels lower than the reproduction rate of the resource. So Mother Nature supplies the fish and supplies enough for humans as well as other feeders in the ocean and we need to limit ourselves to that portion that is able to replace itself with what we leave behind.

What is it that you want NMFS to do specifically?

There are several fundamental issues. First, they need to recognize the fact that they are the trustees for all of the American people, not just the fishermen. This isn't a small club whose only interests are the fishermen and the regulators. There are a lot of people who like to eat fish, there are a lot of people who like to do research on fish, there are a lot of people who like marine mammals that need fish to thrive. So there are a lot of people who are very interested in the oceans. And the regulators need to first of all recognize that they are the trustees for all of these people, not just one narrow economic group.

The second issue that they need to learn, and this will require a real change in how they think about their job, is they need to think about the whole ecosystem; not just counting how many fish are taken out of the oceans but the damage that's being done to the oceans by the fishing gear to determine whether that's important. They need to think about the interactions between fish and other species, like endangered seals or whales or birds or other animals that depend on fish populations for food. Marine birds can't go off to McDonald's to substitute protein; they're completely dependent on the ocean for their food. And so they have to start demonstrating that they understand that they are managing an ecosystem, not just a small group of species.

And I think the third thing that really has to be learned is that our oceans are limited. We can't let fishermen--or any group for that matter--have as much as they want in the short-term without jeopardizing the long-term biological wealth of our oceans. And that's what I think the conservation communities are very frustrated with.

We see an abundant future where there could be a lot more jobs in fishing, there could be a lot more economic activity, there could be many more fish to feed the American consumers and we could have a very healthy biological system. And the current system is in the way of our getting there. And our goals are not to become uneconomic or to take away jobs. We really think that with good management we could double the jobs that usually come out of marine resources.

Do you think the way that fisheries have been managed in New England has had an impact on coastal economy?

There's no question. It sounds ironic given the fact that fishermen find the conservation community to be an enemy in New England, but before the litigation that was brought to try to improve fisheries management by conservation groups, fishermen had lost thousands of jobs already.

If you look at the historic record of New England about how many people, at the turn of the century for example, were making a living from sardines, we're talking about thousands of jobs that fed the economies of coastal communities all the way up from Massachusetts up to New Brunswick, Canada, in every little community there was a sardine fishery because the sardine were so abundant.

Poor management destroyed that fishery and it destroyed the jobs. So the nice thing about fisheries management is that a good conservation ethic will produce a very strong economic future.

Is the Conservation Law Foundation against the fishing industry?

We're against people in the fishing industry who only care about themselves and who only care about today. I wouldn't call them the dominant element in the fishing community, but they are certainly there in numbers. And for a long time, particularly in New England, folks like that were in charge of the fishery and they destroyed it not only for us but for a lot of other fishermen who were quiet and stood on the sidelines and lost their jobs as a consequence.

So we're not against the fishing community as a whole; in fact we work very close with fishermen around issues like pollution; a lot of things where there's a lot of common ground. We're in conflict right now because the fishing community as a whole hasn't taken a long enough perspective on the resource and hasn't adjusted the management accordingly.

Why do you think that the New England Fishery Management Council, and NMFS to a degree, has not implemented the Sustainable Fisheries Act?

There are a couple reasons. One, they don't think in terms of sustainable fisheries. The folks who are on the Management Council have come out of a system that doesn't think about sustainability; it thinks about maximizing its economic revenues today. That's all it has ever cared about until the very recent president and some folks now on the Council are beginning to think longer term.

So they don't understand what the objective of sustainable fisheries are; some of the people who are on the Fisheries Management Councils have economic motivation, I think quite frankly, to thin out the fleet to the extent that they represent fishing interests that will be benefited by a reduction in the number of fishing jobs and increase their competitive position or increase their market share. They are taking steps to see that happens.

And the cost there goes to a lot of the small communities in New England. I think you will see in the coming years a major battle line emerge between the large fleets in some of the big ports like New Bedford, and to a lesser extent Gloucester, and to some extent Portland, Maine, and the small communities like Stonington, Maine or Chatham, Mass. or these other very small communities where the people who go fishing are very different from the kinds of people who are running the big boats and trying to really operate as a profit-taking corporation.

I think another reason is that the Council doesn't have the science at this point that is important to be able to do sustainable fisheries management. Congress hasn't funded a lot of basic science in marine ecosystem management. Right now all the research money predominantly goes to what they call population dynamics, which is a computer simulation that counts fish coming in and out of the system and it does very little more than that. And to really get to sustainability we have to think about lot of other factors other than simply how many fish are born and how many die each year. It's a more complicated problem than that. So there's a science component that's missing.

And then I think the third big missing component in the whole council system is a voice for the general public--the consumers, the conservationists, other people who's interests are more long-term for the health of the resource than just short-term economic interests. So you know until some of their perspectives start to get reflected in the Council and in the National Marine Fisheries Service, I think any effort to try to develop a longer-term management framework is going to fail.

In New England we now have someone from the conservation community who has been on the Council for three years, and he has had an influence. There are now committees that look at questions of fish habitat never existed. And the problem is he doesn't have the votes.

Right now, in terms of the voting blocks on most councils, they are dominated, at least in New England, by commercial fishing interests. In other parts of the country they may be more dominated by recreational fishing interests, but that's just a different hat on who gets to kill the fish. The conservationists' interests are still dramatically underrepresented.

What is the difference between the way fisheries are managed in New England and elsewhere?

I think there is a pretty big divide between the science and the fishermen in New England and I attribute that to the fact that New England was found based on fisheries. And people have been fishing here since the 1600s and before that, before the Europeans came, and over the course of time fishermen think they've figured out how it works. Now truth be known, they really haven't. They've gotten some sense of how things work, but they don't have the full picture.

This is not like going to Seattle and seeing corporate America stenciled over all the boats, which are big, large operations. In the Pacific Northwest, in my experience, the fisheries were more recent, they were developed professionally, they're developed to the scale that's much more highly capitalized and centralized, so even the fishing industry has made major investments in science, in economics, and does a lot more lobbying as a group than they do in New England.

In New England our fisheries are very disorganized, for a lack of a better word, and I think they represent some of the best aspects of American fisheries and to the same extent I think they represent some of the worst aspects in terms of their ability to get access to science, to get funds to science, to do the kinds of technical analyses that an industry really needs to do it if it's going to survive in this world.

And one of our big battles in New England is that the fishermen don't talk to the scientists, and the scientists unfortunately don't talk to the fishermen. And so both lose to opportunity to learn from each other.

There are signs that some of the changes in management from your first suit in 1991--limiting the number of days at sea, and closing some areas and so forth--have been responsible for the restoration of certain groundfish stocks. Since then critical habitat has become more of an issue. Do you think that NMFS and New England Fisheries Council have the wherewithal to start managing the ground fishery in a way to minimize these adverse impacts?

I think on the issue of habitat destruction, the reason that is so important to the conservation community is conserving essential fish habitat will make the difference between fisheries that are just getting by with enough fish to support a kind of a low-level of fishing and fisheries that produce the kind of abundance that we know the ocean was capable of 2 or 300 years ago, before all this habitat destruction started.

So we're trying to put in biological terms, turn the clock back, with this focus on habitat to try to protect the places that are essential to fishes' biological cycle--reproduction, juveniles hiding from other fish so they don't turn into food too quickly--every animal has essential habitat and if you destroy it you destroy that animal's ability to thrive, whether it's people, fish or insects. That is critical to abundance and diversity of fish species.

And the Council doesn't have either the commitment or the know-how at the moment to really tackle that seriously. The threshold question we're struggling with right at this point, I think across America is: Is the council system capable of taking that up and dealing seriously with it or do we have to take that away from the council system and vest responsibility for making sure that the habitats are protected at a higher level in the Federal government?

What would it achieve to vest that authority at a higher level in government?

Well, it would reduce the amount of politics that are entered into the science. You know, this should be a straight scientific determination ideally. We're all realistic enough to know that politics are constantly injected into the science, so there will be some politics. The strength of the council system is that it brings the politics of fisheries management down to a very local level so that theoretically it could be done very well in a surgical, place-specific kind of way.

The negative side of that local influence is that the science gets paralyzed or completely ignored if the science advice, in this case around habitat, is inconsistent with what local people want to do that year in the fishery. And, so I think some decisions are best made at a local level, other decisions really where the national interest is involved (and I think habitat protection maybe one of those areas) really has to be done at a higher federal level.

Are marine protected areas also a benefit for fishing communities and not just for preserving marine wilderness?

I think marine protected areas have become a contemporary buzzword. I think they are happening more and more on the west coast; theirs are a little bit farther advanced than we are on the east coast. But it's inevitable in my mind that they are coming.

I think the properly designed marine protected areas are part of fisheries management, that fishermen should help design them, they should understand why they are being developed, what the hypotheses are in terms of increasing fish production or creating refuges for larger fish that would then export their juveniles out into non-protected areas for fisheries.

There's a lot of science that has to be done around some of these technical questions, such as: will a marine protected area actually export fish into the surrounding areas that could then be caught at higher levels than the fishermen could catch fish without the marine protected area? Those are legitimate, important questions and we need to fund those questions and get some answers.

I believe intuitively, just from my experience on land, that when you do a protected area the wildlife within that area does start to extend out into the non-protected areas. Some people hate that but it does happen biologically, so intuitively I think it's going to happen. I think we need to persuade the fishing community through some better science to actually document it, to set up some test sites to explore that.

What do you think of the notion of opening and closing fishing grounds in the same way farmers have been practicing with crop rotation? That's been apparently the rationale behind getting scallopers into these areas that had been closed to restore groundfish stocks.

I think it's generally a good idea to rotate areas; allow them some time to recover. However, it doesn't allow recovery of all the biological life in an area. Scallops, for example, recover within 3 or 4 years and can reach market-size in that period of time. So scallops by themselves only need a rotatio, say 4 or 5 years between areas to stay at high levels.

Sea corals, however, might take hundreds of years to build, so if you were trying to protect sea corals, which might be in the same areas, a 4-year rotation system doesn't do anything. The questions that haven't been answered are: What are the relationships between sea corals and scallops? And what's the right rotational scheme that would allow us to have some?

So those are the later stages in the discussion. You know, it's encouraging to hear fishermen thinking in terms of stewardship. That's exciting. That's a new word in New England, so I don't want to dismiss it. Stewardship in the sense of here's a practical suggestion of what we can do. Lobster fishermen have been talking about stewardship for years in Maine. A lot of the other fisheries talk about it but they haven't done anything to demonstrate that that's what they're all about. And so it's good to hear scallop fishing folks start talking about basic fundamental stewardship.

It seems odd that with emerging scientific evidence that benthic ecosystems are important to the restoration and recruitment of groundfish, the Fisheries Management Council would allow scallop dredging in areas that had been closed to restore these stocks. Why do you think that they've allowed this to happen when it goes against the purpose of closing them down in the first place?

Well I think the recent sequence of litigations brought by the conservation community against the fishing councils again reflects a response to perhaps our biggest fear, which is that all this sacrifice that have been made in terms of the closures that have happened over the last 5 years, the groundfish and other fish species would have responded to the closures and recovered, so that there was this kind of a light at the end of the tunnel and that people could start working again in some of these fisheries and some of the communities could start restoring themselves in a responsible way and fishing could start taking place.

And our fear is that they would just do the same dumb things they did in the first place all over again, and they would end up inevitably in the same horrible, tragic position. And our sense with the scallop fishery is that the managers, at the request of the scallop fleet, just threw it back open again. And a lot of the current requirements to evaluate habitat, to investigate what you are about to do before you do it, just got thrown by the wayside by the managers because they wanted to please the scallopers as quickly as possible.

And that is just such a tragedy, not only to the recovery of our oceans and to the conservation folks who have been pushing for that, but it's also a horrible tragedy to all those people who have lost their jobs and were hoping at least that their children could get back into the fisheries at some time in the future.

If we're just going to run this system so that the current people are the only folks that get any of the benefits and as soon as some recovery happens, people are allowed back in to nip it in the bud, as it were, and not get the full benefits from it. It's a tragedy and that's why we're going to courts, is that the agencies seem absolutely paralyzed again and the fishing community, at least in this case the scallop fishing industry, doesn't seem any more capable of restraining themselves and going after these fish in a more phase-basis than they ever were.

One thing that people are proud of in Alaska is that once they close down an area from fishing because the marine biologists determine that is necessary, even a call from the governor can't reopen it. But here in New England the management regime doesn't seem to be immune from political influence?

It would be a mistake to say that managers in New England are exclusively to blame for this problem. We have been haunted over the last decade with horrible political interference with the management and I'm not talking just about the folks that you'd expect to ignore environmental issues. I'm talking about people in our Congressional delegations who have national reputations for their environmentalism and their conservation orientation.

Fisheries in New England have always been for the politicians a constituency service issue. So if a scalloper calls up Barney Frank and says, "I gotta get out there into that closed area; can you help me?" The knee-jerk response from Congressman Frank's office is to call up NMFS and say, you better let them in or you'll hear from me at budget time.

And that just does such a disservice to the fishing community in the long run, because these management measures are harsh, but every industry faces harsh times. And the ones that survive are the ones that don't go into denial; they acknowledge that they've got to tighten their belts and restrain themselves for the future and the fishing industry's no different. So our politicians by and large have a terrible track record in terms of leading this region on fisheries matters.

In Alaska the fish are protected by the constitution. In Maine, by way of contrast, the fisheries agency was created and continues to have a principle mission of promoting fishing; that is their job. Biology for the Maine fisheries bureaucrats is a secondary consideration to trying to get as many people out on the water catching as much fish as possible.

Has the New England groundfish industry shrunk over the years and has the reduction of fishing effort actually been successful?

That's a hard question to answer. Let me talk about the current status of the New England groundfishing industry. There have probably been several thousand jobs lost and maybe tens of thousands if you include indirect employees; people, for example who stock ships or process fish over the last 20 years because of declines in fish populations.

Those aren't because some environmental group closed an area; that's because a fish stock disappeared that used to supply a town with product that was then cut and distributed, so it's on that order.

There have been huge job losses; there have been a lot of boats removed from the fleet either by age or simply tied up because they have been sold out of the region. On the other hand over the last 15 years probably the biggest factor influencing how many fish get caught and killed is the improvement in technology. So even though there are fewer boats, the boats that we have are still technically capable of catching a lot more fish than this system can produce.

Are subsidies still continuing to play a role maintaining overfishing?

There are not many subsidies now. There have been some buy-out programs that we have supported, actually, to allow some people to try to transition out of the industry. We didn't think they were going to be particularly useful in really getting to the bottom of the problem but they were helping to some degree.

I think people who have looked at the role subsidies have played in the capitalization of fisheries have concluded properly that in places like New England, and many other places in the country, the big fleets that were struggling to manage and control from killing all the fish were built with federal subsidies.

The Federal Government in the 1980's pumped a lot of money into new boats. There was a lot of fear when the foreign fleets were all kicked out of our waters that all these fish would die of old age, and if we didn't build a replacement fleet for the Russian, some evil would occur. And the government is very good at getting that kind of money out. And a lot of fishermen who frankly had no interest in building a bigger boat built bigger boats because it was cheaper for them to build a subsidized bigger boat than it was for them to maintain their older, smaller boat. And we're living with the consequences of that subsidy program still.

Do you think that the seafood consumers have a role to play in helping decide how our oceans are fished?

I think seafood consumers have a critical role; I'm not sure they know what it is. I go out to dinner a lot with people in restaurants and they want to know, can I eat this fish, can I eat that fish, why is this fish not available? People are full of questions and I think for a consumer to be able to exercise their purchasing power, to choose one over another, they really need to have a lot more information than they have right now.

So we need to have better information. We need to have systems that when they promise a sustainably-caught fish, it is not fraudulent. That means they really are supporting a type of fishing practice that has been determined by objective sources, not just marketing people in New York City, to be a sustainable way of catching that fish. And I think that consumers need to be given some sense, some feedback mechanism of whether their efforts are being useful.

I mean consumers don't have a long attention span typically and people who are not professionally involved in fisheries have a lot of other things on their minds. So if consumers are going to have an effect there really has to be a tightly focused sort of campaign that is designed to produce good results.

And I think in our area a lot of fishermen, particularly the smaller scale fishermen, really do take good care of their fish products--some of the hook and liners, some of the draggers that just go out for a day as opposed the folks who go out for 15 or 20 or 30 days. I mean let's face it, a day-old fish is a different fish even though it's the same species than from one that sat in a fish hull for 14 days.

And I think a lot of fishermen would like to take advantage and develop market share around really fresh fish. One of the really great things about living on the coast in this country is you realize what fresh fish tastes like. And you go to a place like Chicago and go to a supermarket and you say, I'd like some fresh fish, and you taste it and it's not the same piece of cod that you had two days ago on the coast of Maine. I think a lot of local fishermen in particular and smaller scale fishermen would love to figure out how they could get their fish onto the plates of Middle America.

One thing we're trying to get through to the funders of this program is that consumers need more information.

It really is surprising. They don't know. You go in a supermarket, even in New England, and it says, "fresh fish," and 95% of people who buy fish assume it's local; fresh equals local. Well that equation is not accurate. The fresh fish in some cases in our stores, particularly in the larger supermarkets, may be coming from Alaska, it may be coming from the Bering Sea. It's probably good fish, but number one, it's not local fish, and depending on your definition of fresh fish, it's probably not fresh fish.

And just like meat gets graded and there's certain ways that consumers have been given information that they can use in their purchasing, 'fresh' is not a good enough label really. In our belief consumers want to have more information and if they have it they'll use it.

On the other hand supermarkets don't want to have the headaches of creating a lot of different categories, so they just want to have cod and for them it doesn't matter whether it came from the Japanese sea or New England.

What about the idea that the ocean and its resources belong to the people, not just to the fishing industry?

For me, ever since I've been a kid oceans have been magical places. They've been places where I've gone to fish, they've been places where I've gone to swim, they've been places where I've operated boats. I've been on oceans forever. And so for me, the notion that the only group of people who should have a voice in how the oceans are managed is fishermen is crazy.

It doesn't comport with the importance the oceans have for people throughout this country, regardless of where they are living. I mean, there are people who have never gone to Maine, who have never talked to a Maine lobsterman, who have never seen a lobster trap. But they love to know that those people are there; they love to know that there's a lobster fishery in Maine; they love to know that at some point they could do that.

And in order to keep people's dreams about the oceans alive we really need to approach it much more carefully and at a much more higher level than simply as an economic resource. This isn't just something to be exploited; this is something that goes deep into people's hearts and souls, and is in our literature, in a lot of places, and everyone should be able to speak and have an opinion about how the oceans are protected.

I have one other point I want to make. I've been, for the past 10 years, working pretty close with fishermen and they are hardworking, creative, wonderful people. There is no question that a day with a fisherman is unlike any other day you'll ever spend, and I mean that positively.

And I think to a large degree, particularly in New England but I know it's true elsewhere, the bulk of the fishing community has really been disserved by it's leaders, and it's been mislead by its leaders and a lot of people who would be fishing today aren't, because the leadership in the fishing industry was captured by a few large economic interests. And they did not try to speak for everybody.

And the fishing community has started to wake up to the fact that if fishermen in the small ports and fishermen around the country are going to have a future, they have to have fish, they have to participate in the management, and they have to become stewards. And it's unfortunate that we have to wait until the 21st century to have that but it's a very important development and we support it totally.