Regulating fisheries out of business won’t protect the oceans

July 02, 2019 | By DANIEL ORTNER

When government regulations for America’s coastline go too far there are real consequences. Beach homeowners feel these abuses most often when they’re forced to give up their property or acquiesce to absurd bureaucratic rules. But when the government sweeps in like a red tide, beachfront homeowners aren’t the only victims. Small businesses can also be suffocated by red tape and regulatory overreach. Nowhere is this more apparent than in America’s fishing industry.

In New England, generations of fishermen and lobstermen have fished the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Fishermen and regional councils take their work seriously and operate together to regulate fishing methods, set catch limits, and operate catch share programs to protect their waters for generations to come. These science-based collaborations are incredibly successful at sustaining economic growth, preserving the environment, and ensuring the sustainability of fishing stock.

Cue the government overreach.

Shortly before leaving office, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a 5,000 square mile plot of ocean—an area roughly the size of Connecticut—as a national monument. Then, despite the fact that sustainable fishing has gone on in these waters since colonial times, the president determined, unilaterally and without consulting any industry stakeholders, that fishing anywhere in the new ocean “monument” was banned.

As a result, most fishermen who fished these waters have been forced to move or go out of business, and the area will be completely off-limits for all commercial fishing as of 2024. So far, President Trump has resisted calls from within his administration to reverse his predecessor’s fishing ban.

Several commercial fishermen and lobstermen associations turned to PLF to fight back against this abuse of power in the name of conservation. The legal argument centers on the fact that the government can’t regulate land it doesn’t own—in this case, the ocean. But the moral argument cuts to the core of the issue: Too often the government ignores facts and wages battles it doesn’t need to fight in the first place.

For many New Englanders, fishing represents not only their livelihood, but their way of life. The livelihood of these men’s families depended on a healthy ocean, and they worked together to ensure that ocean stayed healthy while providing sustenance for hundreds of thousands of people every year. But now that partnership of man and nature is at risk.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the state of California is leading its own misguided battle against fishermen and their way of life.

For decades, commercial fisheries on the West Coast, like their eastern counterparts, have worked with federal and state representatives to develop ecologically smart and economically feasible fishing techniques that reduce the unintentional impact on sea life.

When fishing for swordfish—one of the most abundant types of fish on the West Coast—the nets can sometimes snag other sea animals by accident. But by collaborating with regulators, fishermen have been successful in reducing these unintentional catches as much as possible.

Despite the fishing industry’s successful operations, California recently phased out the use of swordfish (or drop-gill) nets. This is already having devastating impacts on the fishing industry and could cripple the domestic swordfish supply. By obliterating the sustainably caught domestic supply of one of the most popular types of seafood, many retailers are purchasing their swordfish from foreign markets which are poorly regulated and have little oversight for quality or environmental impact. This is what happened in Hawaii when similar federal regulations were put in place in 2011.

While the swordfish fishermen of California and the lobstermen of New England are thousands of miles apart, they share two common bonds. One is their relation to the ocean and the sustenance that it provides them and their customers; the other is their unearned, government-given scarlet letter of enemies to the environment.

It’s unclear how either of these situations will resolve, but what is clear is a better path forward: Instead of regulating fishermen out of existence, the government can treat them as partners and stakeholders. When fishermen are given a vested property interest in the fish they catch, they are more effective stewards of the oceans than government regulators could ever be.