The following commentary by Wild Oceans president Ken Hinman was written when Congress was in the midst of amending the federal Magnuson Act and remains relevant today as lawmakers re-examine the Act and consider making changes.
Ocean View, Spring 2005
"NOTHING REALLY CHANGES EXCEPT THE RULES"
The late, great Hunter S. Thompson said that, and I couldn’t help thinking how right he was, as I sat through a panel on reforming fishing laws at the recent conference, “Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries.” In the 28 years since the councils began implementing the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, our fundamental problem hasn’t changed. In most cases, without the proper constraints, we will overfish, to the point of resource depletion and harm to our fisheries. And we are more capable of overfishing than ever before.
In other words, despite increases in our knowledge of fish and fishing’s impacts, our hard-earned experience repairing depleted fisheries, and a growing conservation ethic among many fishermen, if we were to remove today’s rules – most notably, those contained in the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act – we’d quickly return to the days of pillage and plunder.
Since 1976, we’ve changed the rules many times. More than that, we’ve added regulations ad infinitum. Some might say ad nauseum. And lacking a common vision for our fisheries and a universal conservation ethic, we are becoming process driven. Following the rules and regulations, more and more of them every year, leading us further away from a management system based on common values. And law without values is a bureaucracy without purpose. It’s no more than a process.
The rules have become all-important. Which is why we’re so focused on fiddling with them. We’re now in the midst of yet another Congressional reauthorization of Magnuson, and it promises, once again, to be a tug-of-war over the rules. Yet it seems as if we’ve lost sight of where it is all supposed to be taking us.
I think of myself as a conservative conservationist. I’m a strong and unapologetic environmentalist. But I’m no fan of government bureaucracy, controlling and micromanaging every aspect of fishing, or wasting taxpayers’ money. And I’m not happy that our system has become, as one panelist put it, a “costly, redundant and slow processing of actions and creation of disenfranchised, confused and frustrated user groups.”
But is the cause of this problem the rules themselves, and is the answer merely lifting the regulatory burden, as some propose? Or is it the lack of a coherent vision and political will behind the rules? Actually, it’s both. And we’ll never fix things – with more than a temporary fix, anyway – focusing on just the rules.
We can all join the chorus and chant the mantra of reform I heard at the conference: streamline, consolidate and simplify. But that will be impossible until we change more than the rules, and change the way we as a nation think about the ocean.