The ivory watchtower

Precedent. I’ve come to learn that it can carry far more weight in our country than the word of law, even a massive, longstanding federal law.

The Magnuson Act is formed around 10 National Standards, but they don’t enjoy equal weight in practice. Federal fisheries are managed primarily by the first two standards — preventing overfishing and using the best available science. Though it’s all the way down the list as number 8, the act explicitly states that the importance of fisheries to their communities should be taken into account and quantified with the same science used to assess the fisheries themselves “in order to provide for the sustained participation of such communities, and to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.”

The expectation that the Northeast groundfish fleet (or any fleet, for that matter) — already on its knees as a result of managing to the best available (and in this case insufficient) science — pay for their own observer coverage strikes me as being in violation of almost every mandate in the Magnuson Act.

There is insurmountable evidence that piling on the burden of paying for onboard observers results in undue strain on the fleet and therefore the communities. Let’s not forget National Standard 7, “Conservation and management measures shall, where practicable, minimize costs.”

So you might ask, how are we so adept at ignoring National Standards 7 and 8? Precedent. It’s a bad habit formed over several decades.

And now the government wants to mandate observers but not pay for them, and a federal judge has ruled that it’s a fair mandate (read the story in Around the Coasts on p. 15). We’re also told that the groundfish fleet got lucky this year because a windfall of cash is available to cover observers for most of the year.

Where did that money come from? The company that contracted with the government to schedule observers for the fleet neglected to place observers on about a third of the trips it was supposed to. It’s a happy windfall, right? But what is the fate of that company? If fishermen failed to comply with the law or a federal contract 33 percent of the time, what would be their fate? How likely is it that the government would be touting the results as a lucky happenstance? I think it more likely that those fishermen would be fined into oblivion. That’s the precedent, anyway.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center announced recently, in collaboration with several fisheries associations, that they will at long last transition their groundfish survey work from the overpowered Henry B. Bigelow to cooperative surveys using Northeast fishing boats. Bill Karp, the outgoing director of the center, is respected from coast to coast. He has made significant progress in improving the relationship between NOAA and the Northeast fleet.

While I will be very sad to see him retire this fall, I hope his dedication to fairness, transparency and data will serve as a lasting legacy that helps bring the Northeast groundfish fleet back from the brink.

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