TRANSCRIPT - Peter Shelley
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Why do you think that the New England Fishery Management Council,
and NMFS to a degree, has not implemented the Sustainable Fisheries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
What is the difference between the way fisheries are managed in
New England and elsewhere?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.