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The Catch

What happens when industry insiders write their own regulations? Welcome to the fishing business.

At least one flagrant instance of an ongoing conflict of interest in the Western Pacific Council was detailed in a 2003 prize-winning series by editor Paul Koberstein in the Cascadia Times of Portland, Oregon. The series chronicled the voting record of two business partners, Jim Cook and Sean Martin, who operate a company in Honolulu that supplies gear to commercial fishermen. For a time, Cook chaired the Western Pacific Council, and Martin is a current member. While engaged in longline fishing, Martin moved to open a turtle reserve area to the practice, even though long-lining has been known to seriously threaten four species of endangered sea turtles. (The motion passed.) Meanwhile, Cook has reportedly been fined for illegal lobster harvesting, and their company, Pacific Ocean Producers, has been fined for illegally fishing in protected waters and other violations.

While not always so obvious, the conflict- of-interest issue is embedded in council culture. During a recent meeting of the New England Council, through two and a half days of discussion and votes, not a single member requested recusal. More striking, at the March 2005 NOAA conference, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere—the NOAA administrator—said in a speech: “I don’t believe in this great conflict-of-interest issue. I don’t think we have that on our fishery management councils. It’s not been a problem, anyway.”

But in surveys conducted to help assess the council system, many members have revealed their discomfort over conflicts of interest. They continue to cast votes on regulatory matters, perhaps because most see themselves as representatives of specific industry constituencies, such as Maine lobstermen, rather than the vague general public. Indeed, “the council system encourages that attitude,” notes Josh Eagle, an attorney who headed up the Stanford Fisheries Policy Proj- ect and was lead author of its critical report on the system.

The problem, say Fensom and others, goes beyond the specific conflict of any individual member. “It is contrary to human experience and common sense to expect certain members to vote against the direct financial interest of the industry represented by an individual member,” he said in his resignation letter from the Gulf Council. “It is unfair to the council process and the individual members to place these members in such a moral, financial, and ethical conflict.”

MANY CRITICS of fishery management point to another serious conflict inherent in the councils: They are responsible for both conservation and allocation decisions. “The councils decide how many fish can be caught and who can catch them,” says Eagle. “Because larger catches are easier to divide up among competing fishery interests, the councils’ responsibility to allocate catches encourages them to set lax fishery limits, undermining conservation.”

Two recent far-reaching reports, one by the Pew Oceans Commission in 2003 and another by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in 2004, expressed strong concern about this issue (among many others) and recommended that science should determine catch levels—that is, how many fish can sustainably be taken from the sea—while the councils should determine how those catches are allocated. Councils currently regulate allocation through “limited entry,” or boat permits; by controlling “effort,” which entails such steps as limiting the number of fishing days at sea; or by quotas, a strict limit on how many pounds can be caught in a season. Each of these methods comes with problems. Of regulating effort, for example, New England council member Cunningham says, “it’s as if the Bureau of Land Management were attempting to regulate the timber industry by restricting the size of the chain saws. It doesn’t work.”

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