The coast and ocean have been prominent in the history, culture, and economy of America for centuries. The cod fishery – dubbed America’s “first industry” - was a mainstay of the colonial economy and an important reason to fight England during the American Revolution for interfering with trade. Fisheries remained a vital source of food, economic production, and employment for families and local economies during the late 1800s, as well as places where young men learned skills that prepared them for war. But Spencer Baird (founder of the Woods Hole Laboratory) saw signs of local depletion near-shore. A century of growth in consumer demand and major technological advances in fishing power caused the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 and prevent foreign factory ships from exhausting stocks within a 200-nautical mile fishery conservation zone. This area is bigger than the 50 states combined and, in 1983, became the largest Extended Economic Zone in the world.
Despite more than two decades of domestic management and thousands of regulations, most U.S. fish stocks - including the once valuable Atlantic cod - were heavily depleted by the 21st century by a superabundance of vessels in combination with increased pollution. In most large urban communities, fisheries had long ago disappeared into the shadows of other coastal and ocean industries, particularly tourism and recreation, marine construction, and oil and gas production.
Institutional reforms that would better allocate resources among commercial, recreational, subsistence, fishing community and conservation sectors are a critical need. The reforms should be cost-effective, productive, flexible, and accommodating of unusual circumstances in the way they: (1) allow for a variety of uses, including by internalizing spillovers and competition for space; (2) facilitate growth of the marine economy by being open to alternative production arrangements; (3) regard natural resources and environment services as assets for long term use and preservation; (4) accommodate uncertainty and changes in ecosystems, the physical environment, technology, and peoples’ preferences; and (5) provide opportunity for individuals and local communities and businesses to improve their well-being.
Ecosystem based management (EBM) for spatially heterogeneous resources and users is being looked at favorably as a framework for these holistic objectives. Elements of an EBM have been incorporated in fisheries management in the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem (NES LME) for several years. For example, in 1994, several areas on Georges Bank, Southern New England, and the Gulf of Maine were closed year-round to rebuild stocks of Atlantic cod and other groundfish, and seasonally to protect harbor porpoise from gillnets. Within a decade, the number of areas used to manage stock rebuilding and production, minimize by-catch, safeguard protected species such as mammals and turtles, allocate fishing opportunities spatially, and protect habitat exceeded a hundred. An illustration of current large-scale closure areas is provided in Figure 1. Shorter term seasonal closures are not included here.
EBM is a spatial management framework. Therefore, social scientists are obliged to learn about the spatial behavior of fishermen, such as the multitude of fishing trips taken by commercial and party/charter vessels in 2005 (Figure 2) and prepare more detailed analyses of the economic and social impacts of management actions. Fishing locations in the NES LME are obviously influenced by fishing gear and where to find target species, but they are also differentiated by port, vessel size, area closure constraints, gear conflicts, and resource claims such as in some of Maine’s lobster fisheries.
Figure 1. Various management closed areas in the NES LME.
Social science offers more insight than what impact analysis reveals, however. Anthropology, economics, the law, and sociology provide alternative legitimate understandings of how institutional designs affect human behavior, resource allocation, and outcomes for the economy, communities, families, and the environment. It falls within the realm of social sciences to provide the human dimensions of EAM having to do with governance institutions, property rights regimes, and human behavior, too. It must always be kept in mind that “management” is a subjective endeavor attempting to manipulate natural resources and the environment into something desired by humans. Even preservation is an objective which implies opinions about the role of humans in nature.
Figure 2. Locations of commercial and recreational (charter/party boat) fishing trips taken in 2005 as reported by captains in vessel logbooks.
In the following sections, the role of humans in marine ecosystems is explored in the context of anthropological and economic considerations. We then place these considerations in a management context as we move towards ecosystem based management.