Agency Proposal Would Reduce the Public's Right to Know about the Fish Population

Our nation's ocean wildlife and fish are a public resource, and citizens should be able to track the impact of fishing on fish populations. But a new proposal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will greatly reduce the public's access to essential fisheries data, including taxpayer-funded programs. Restricting public access to fisheries data could erode scientific integrity, transparency, and public participation in government decisions and eventually lead to poorer management of fisheries.


Commercial and recreational fishing generates about $183 billion per year for the U.S. economy and supports more than 1.5 million full- and part-time jobs. Despite being one of the leading producers of fish, the United States has had a poor record of ocean management, and overfishing has been a problem since the 1970s. According to a 2009 World Bank and United Nations report, poor fisheries management and depleted stocks lead to a $50 billion annual loss in the world's fishing fleet. We spend about $40 million a year in public money to collect fisheries management data – data that tells us what fish are caught, how they are caught, and how that affects the ocean's wildlife. This information allows scientists to measure the impact of fishing and enables the public to see the importance of an effective fishery management system in ensuring the sustainability of ocean fish and the ecosystem on which they rely.

To assist in effectively managing ocean fish, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) in 1976 and reauthorized the law in 2006. The law provides for the placement of scientific observers aboard fishing vessels to collect and analyze data needed for the conservation and management of fisheries. The information these at-sea observers collect is crucial to monitoring whether fishermen are complying with conservation practices that protect endangered species and help prevent overfishing.

Under the act, the public can obtain observer fishery data from the government, as long as personal information, such as the individual and business name or fishing location, is not revealed. This method allows private fisheries to make important scientific information about wildlife resources transparent, but also lets them keep private information that might affect their competitiveness (a fisherman may not want information on where he fishes available to other fishermen, for example).

The fisheries data is critical for conservation measures, which need to be modified to reflect changing conditions. Observer information can be used to identify times and areas where there are conservation issues. It is essential that such information be publicly available to scientists and conservationists. NOAA's new proposal would reduce public access to this information.

NOAA's Proposal

On May 23, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service issued a proposed new rule that could undermine the intent of the law to effectively manage fisheries and avoid overfishing. Instead of accessing the data directly from the government, the public might have to go through private fishing companies to access information about their fishing and its impact on the ecosystem. That is, the rule could give fishing permit holders control over the statistics and information collected and reported about them, even though the information is collected by third-party observers paid by the federal government. This change creates a clear conflict of interest since fishing permit holders have a financial stake in the fishery market. Even if only a minority of fishermen withholds information, it could compromise key data for wildlife management.

The purpose of using observers was to have impartial people record scientific data to avoid these kinds of conflicts. Releasing the data back to fishing companies will raise questions about the accuracy and integrity of the data since individual fishermen or businesses that receive financial gain from fish catches have an incentive to underreport.

The proposed rule does not provide any procedures for how the public can obtain the data collected by observers. Under Magnuson-Stevens, NOAA has periodically released aggregate information about the fish population to the public. Data aggregation is a simple method to provide the public with fisheries data without releasing confidential information. The new proposed rule does not contain any specifics on how, when, or to whom any aggregated data may be released. (The proposal also omits a timeline for developing procedures to make any data publicly available.)

Next Step: Stand Up and Take Action

NOAA's proposal would roll back public access to data on our fish populations collected with public supports. America's oceans are a valuable resource, but in recent years, overfishing and ecosystem damage from pollution have put our fish populations at risk. The public has the right to know the environmental and economic status of fisheries.

If you want to guard against overfishing and protect endangered fish from possible extinction, it's time to take action.

Urge NOAA to withdraw its current proposal and replace it with one that continues to allow public access to fishery data and increases public participation in decision making around the management of our ocean resources. By doing so, you'll be protecting a vital national resource. The agency will be taking public comments until Oct. 21.

Image in teaser by flickr user icelight, used under a Creative Commons license.

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