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The Political Science of Fisheries Management

November 18, 2011 I’ve long argued that the marine policy community would be better off with more social scientists.  In the case of fisheries management, the need is stunning.  Again and again we see that it is the politics rather than the science that hold back progress.

In this context, I’ve played around with a few basic frameworks for systems analysis.   One concern of mine has been to explain why fisheries management systems work both comparatively and on a case-by-case basis.   Another has been to improve our vocabulary to better discuss solutions.  For example, we see ‘good fisheries governance’ talked about all the time, but rarely a definition.  (In some cases it appears to mean that rule makers have set sustainable targets, in other cases high compliance rates, and in others both.)

And so, I took great pleasure in coming across a theory of fisheries management and enforcement systems in a 1990 article by Sutinen et al.    Here I provide the authors’ description of the system’s 5 structural elements using the U.S. as an example*:

The first element consists of the rule-making bodies charge with formulating laws and regulations for fisheries management. At the federal level, these are the executive and legislative branches of government, including the fishery management councils. The main actors are, of course, regional fishery management councils, and the agencies o f the Department of Commerce (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service). Preparation of the fishery management plans (FMPs) and regulations concerning fisheries in federal waters is the responsibility of the fishery management councils. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has responsibility for plan approval and promulgation of the final regulations.

The second element consists of the laws and regulations enacted by the rule-making bodies. The principal piece of legislation is the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and the principal regulations are contained in FMPs. These plans contain, among other things, the regulations formulated by the council and approved by the secretary of commerce for implementing the Magnuson Act.

The third element, the fishing industry, consists of the fishermen and others whose behavior is restricted by the regulations contained in the FMPs. Besides fishermen, these include fish dealers, distributors, and wholesalers and retailers of regulated fish.

The fourth element consists of the agencies authorized to monitor firms’ and individuals’ compliance with fishery regulations and laws. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Coast Guard are jointly responsible for enforcing the Magnuson Act and the regulations contained in FMPs.

The fifth element consists of those agencies authorized to prosecute, judge, and sanction individuals found violating the above laws and regulations. The NOAA General Counsel (GC) office is responsible for prosecuting cases under the Magnuson Act. Since it also settles cases out of court, the GC is also involved in sanctioning offenders. For those cases requiring a hearing, the administrative law judge of the Department of Commerce provides the initial venue. Judgements by the Administrative Law Court can be appealed to the administrator of NOAA and federal district court.

Using this framework, the authors were then able to theorize and apply that theory, in this case, to understand why New England groundfish fishermen comply with the rules.   Yes, it’s a basic framework, but very powerful as various intervening variables come to be understood, including economic incentives, moral obligation, social norms, and habits.

 *This 1990 description remains accurate except for the name of the overarching law, which is now ‘The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’

Sutinen, J., Rieser, A., & Gauvin, J. (1990). Measuring and explaining noncompliance in federally managed fisheries Ocean Development & International Law, 21 (3), 335-372 DOI: 10.1080/00908329009545942

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