Our Impact: Supporting the Sustainability of Federal Fisheries

This is the eighth installment in a 12-part series highlighting the environmental policy impacts of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions over its first decade.

In 2007, legislative reauthorization introduced substantial changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary federal law that governs the conservation of fisheries in U.S. federal waters. These changes—aimed at increasing economic and social benefits by ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks—had fisheries managers grappling with new terminology and a complex framework for determining the “right” amount of fish to catch.

“At the time, the rewrite of the Magnuson-Stevens Act was so confusing,” said Dale Myer, who recently completed his third appointment to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. “Everyone had a different idea of what the law really said.”

This confusion was exactly why the Fisheries Leadership & Sustainability Forum (Fisheries Forum), which provides policy-neutral support for the exploration of challenges and emerging issues facing our nation's federal fishery managers, held a 2010 Forum on the new terminology and methodology in the act.

Myer was one of the council members in attendance.

“There were so many acronyms. The Fisheries Forum brought in experts to talk through the changes to the law, and how this new framework for setting harvest levels would account for different kinds of uncertainty. That took a lot of the mystique out of the rewrite,” Myer said, noting that after the in-depth dive he walked away with greater confidence in working through its mandates with his own council.

Myer’s experience illustrates one of the main goals of the Fisheries Forum—to provide opportunities to share ideas among and learn from the experiences of other members of the federal fisheries management community, which includes members and staff of eight regional fishery management councils across the country, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and a diverse group of experts in fisheries science and management.

Set to be housed exclusively within the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions' Oceans and Coastal Policy Program this summer, the Fisheries Forum was developed in 2008 as a partnership among four leading policy institutions: the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Center for Ocean Solutions, the Nicholas Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund. The Fisheries Forum helps fishery managers build their professional networks and work through challenging science and management topics with in-person meetings, policy research, and its Fisheries Forum Information Network, an online portal for sharing resources and building professional networks across management regions.

“The federal fisheries management community is its own best resource,” said Katie Latanich, co-director of the Fisheries Forum. “One of the most fulfilling aspects of our work is the opportunity to help decision makers learn from experience, and learn from each other.”

The Fisheries Forum helps organize and facilitate forums, as well as regional and national workshops in collaboration with councils and NOAA Fisheries, to allow fishery managers to explore issues, together, across management regions.

The latest forum explored risk-based management approaches for responding to uncertainty in fisheries science and management. Michelle Duval, vice chair of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the state of North Carolina’s representative to the council, attended the meeting where she learned about management strategy evaluation, a process for assessing the performance of different management strategies relative to management objectives. The tool struck a chord.

“This was a tool the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council could use to make more educated decisions about risks to ensure our decision making is more proactive rather than reactive,” Duval said, noting she is exploring use of the tool as the Council begins a strategic planning process for one of the region’s fisheries.

Like Duval, Myer finds each forum to be a resource. It is why he’s attended 12 of the 14 forums the Fisheries Forum has held in its seven years. Each one, Myers said, exposes him to a timely, relevant topic and gives him a chance to interact with other council members facing similar challenges.

“What I have always really appreciated about the Fisheries Leadership and Sustainability Forum is that it has a tendency to pick up topics that are hot or sensitive at the moment,” Myer said. “The Fisheries Forum isn’t telling you what to think. The forums are all about giving you the information to make a good decision.”

Its information that’s aided him—and many others—to wade through everything from the Magnuson-Stevens Act to habitat conservation and climate change and governance.

“The Fisheries Forum took shape to help decision-makers learn and grow during a challenging time,” said Kim Gordon, co-director of the Fisheries Forum and staffer since 2009, “but along the way we identified an ongoing need. By sharing ideas and experience, and collaborating with colleagues, decision makers can work through complex challenges and develop pathways for long-term success. It’s been exciting to see decision makers continue to advance their thinking on the complex meaning of sustainability and to support them along the way.”

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--Story by Erin McKenzie