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Book Review

Overfishing

From Abundance to Scarcity: A History of U.S. Marine Fisheries Policy, by Michael L. Weber. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002, 320 pp.

Andrew A. Rosenberg

The environmental issues confronting the United States and the world are varied, huge, and often incredibly complicated: global warming, nutrient runoff and nonpoint source pollution, water quality and overuse, and so on. For each of these, the geographical scope is large, the constituencies are many, and the political battles are fierce. Even more problematic is that for many of these problems, we may not really know what needs to be done or how to do it. Take fisheries conservation and management. The ocean is certainly a big place, but few Americans actually make their living from it or even know the source of their seafood. Restrictions and regulations affect few people. Even in New England, there are only a few thousand fishermen. In this case, though, we do know what to do, even if determining how to do it is harder. Overfishing is a big problem; to deal with it, we need to fish less.

Michael Weber's excellent history of U.S. fisheries policy demonstrates how difficult it has been to come to grips with even a relatively small-scale environmental problem. Weber's style is concise, readable, and quite fast-paced for a policy review. He shows the clear line of development of the U.S. Fish Commission, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, and the National Marine Fisheries Service as successive government agencies with changing levels of responsibility for U.S. marine fisheries science, policy development, management, and regulation. The book digs into why each of the agencies developed and acted as they did then and now. Rather than taking the simplistic view that government policy resulted from some grand scheme or political dogma, or from the desire for centralization and power that some ascribe to the federal government, Weber shows how personalities, the politics of the time, congressional direction, and industry intervention and interest group lobbying have shaped marine resource management policy. He also describes some of the startling failures of those policies.

The book documents the development of the fisheries management agencies as a partner with the domestic fishing industry to foster its development from the late 19th century to the 1980s. From product development and hatchery rearing to vessel subsidy and support to build up the fleet, U.S. fisheries policy was designed for economic development, not environmental conservation or sustainable use. Congress set the policy, of course, but it did so in direct response to industry wishes. Thus, I have found it ironic to hear industry representatives cite government buildup of fishing fleets as the cause of overfishing, as if industry was a reluctant recipient of these subsidies. I have even heard this line from members of Congress. Weber lays bare the industry pressures that resulted in congressional action.

One of the book's best illustrations concerns the damming of rivers in the Northwest and subsequent attempts to maintain salmon stocks through hatchery production. Those attempts have been abject failures, but that hasn't stopped the continued pouring of funds into hatchery production. The millions of dollars poured each year into hatcheries have remained locally a very popular investment, even though the program does not address the underlying problem that dam building has resulted in dozens of salmon species becoming endangered. It is a policy developed in a vacuum: Build the dams and then worry about the fish. Build the hatcheries even though that's an inadequate response. Then, maintain both, because to remove either a dam or a hatchery would result in some economic dislocation.

Much of the money and effort directed at fisheries problems over the years has been for science programs, which Weber cogently describes. Yet it is incredible how selectively the science has been used in actual policy development. In essence, the science was chosen to fit the politics necessary to move forward with a particular policy. Although the words of scientific management were espoused, science and policy often moved on separate tracks. Recently, I have heard calls to remove the scientific enterprise even further from policy development in the name of independence. Imagine how difficult it would be to keep science in the forefront of policy decisions if science were no longer a responsibility of the principal management agency.

Weber's book is full of anecdotes, interviews, and quotes from those involved in fisheries over the years. This gives the book its readability and also much of its insight into the policy formulation process. Reading comments from agency managers, politicians, and industry groups shows how politics has usually won out over the need to conserve resources and adequately manage fisheries. The pressure to build fleets and push fishing limits to the edge of unsustainability and beyond has resulted in stock declines and collapses in all U.S. waters. The end result has been a short-term collapse of local industries, usually attributed to regulation but really the result of depletion of fish stocks. The long-term result is a very difficult road to recovery, if recovery is possible at all.

Weber's book is a good place to start in developing a list of problems that need to be addressed in U.S. fisheries management. These include separating conservation decisions from allocation between user groups; defining state-federal interactions and lines of authority; strengthening the conservation mandate in the underlying statutes; and most of all, deciding what our governing principles should be for using ocean resources. Two high-level commissions are currently addressing these and other issues. The Pew Commission on Ocean Policy is a privately funded effort. The U.S. National Ocean Policy Commission, authorized in the Oceans Act of 2000, has a mandate to provide recommendations to the president and Congress on all aspects of U.S. ocean policy except national security. Hopefully, they will take some of their cues from Weber's history.

The continuing saga of the fishing industry and its problems is best seen in the example of the New England groundfish industry, which is woven throughout the book. Here, the most detail is given about the interplay of forces that took us from abundance to scarcity. In New England, there were unrealistic expectations for prosperity after foreign fishing fleets were displaced, but what actually occurred was continual congressional micromanagement, huge industry pressures to keep regulations at bay, and finally a tragic fishery collapse. Now, however, many of the stocks are actually recovering, largely because of regulatory action. The struggle is to keep the recovery going. Yet, despite evidence that management can work, there are indications that a new cycle of inaction, lawsuits, and recrimination may be developing.

As the debate continues, the intriguing question is whether the collapse of fishing stocks and greater understanding of the causes have broadened the constituency for marine fisheries issues sufficiently to stem the potent political pressures for a return to the failed policies of the past. Weber's book leads us to that question, and I wouldn't mind hearing his answer in a year or so. After all, he has given us a roadmap for the past century. How about the next?


Andrew A. Rosenberg (andy.rosenberg@unh.edu), a former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Services, is dean of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire.