How U.S. nonprofits came to care about fish

How Greens went Blue

Piecing together a history of the Marine Fish Conservation Movement: A work in progress

Reef fish off Kauai, Hawaii. Photo by Denis Devine

Reef fish off Kauai, Hawaii. Photo by Denis Devine

Two decades ago, hardly anyone in U.S. environmental activist circles cared much about preserving fish. After all, there were “always more fish in the sea.” But that’s changed, big-time: Now, every large U.S. environmental or conservation organization has a department devoted to oceans and marine conservation. How did that happen?

On this page, I hope to record the policy changes, legislative and lobbying efforts, scientific breakthroughs, and societal shifts that were influenced by or influenced the fledgling movement. This work was originally funded by the Blue Ocean Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by Carl Safina and Mercedes Lee and dedicated to celebrating the ocean and its inhabitants.

Major work on this project was suspended in 2003, but I’m now picking it up again in 2008.

To some observers – the media, defenders of the status quo and the general public – social movements often seem like they come out of nowhere, Athenas born as armor-clad adults leaping from the skull of Zeus. But that’s not always the case: movements often evolve from other movements seeking social change.

Many social historians say the civil rights movement begat the opposition to the Vietnam War, which in turn begat the women’s liberation movement. When activists are gathered together to work tirelessly for a cause, making connections and building coalitions, the conditions are ripe for the birth of a new movement. Gather that many smart, dedicated people together to “save the world,” or some discrete slice of it, and they’re bound to stumble upon a new issue previously neglected by society and society’s reformers.

That’s what happened with what I’ll call the “marine fish conservation movement.” I’m talking about the efforts to preserve wild fish in the world’s oceans, which have gotten a lot of press in recent years. This “movement” – which doesn’t often recognize itself as one – is about 20 years old, give or take a few years. Like the civil rights, anti-Vietnam and women’s lib movements, it partially traces its roots back to other social change efforts. In this case, the campaigns to protect whales, seals, dolphins and turtles – the “air-breathers” to some fish conservationists – helped make the efforts to preserve fish possible.

In the slogan of the Living Oceans Program he founded in 1993 at the National Audubon Society, Carl Safina summed up the movement’s key insight: “Fish are wildlife, too.” If it doesn’t seem all that earth-shattering to us today, that’s a measure of how successful the efforts of this growing fleet of environmentalists and conservation-minded fishers, chefs and scientists have been.

But the story of the modern fish conservation movement begins with people better known for killing them.

Success comes with stripes

Long before mainstream environmental groups had recognized fish as a natural treasure worth protecting, some fishermen were already working to preserve their prey. Their success in getting the federal government to protect Atlantic striped bass in particular demonstrated that a depleted but highly valued fish could be allowed to recover with the right kind of management.

Founded by conservation-minded recreational fishermen in 1973, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) focused exclusively on ocean fish in a decade when other conservation groups were working on the new raft of environmental laws like the Endangered Species, Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. A few, like Greenpeace and the Center for Environmental Education, had begun to advocate for whales and against whaling, but no one else was speaking for fish.

“For a lot of years it was kind of a lonely endeavor,” says Ken Hinman, who joined the organization in 1978 and is still leading its efforts 25 years later.

In the late 1970s, the NCMC focused on the gamefish that the recreational fishermen so cherished: tuna, billfish and stripers. Watching the number of bluefin tuna, marlin and swordfish plummet in the Northwest Atlantic after the Japanese fishing industry introduced longline fishing, fishermen began sounding the alarm.

Closer to shore, anglers were getting worried about their beloved striped bass turning up on fewer and fewer hooks. After a seven-year campaign, the NCMC and a few other sportfishing groups celebrated a landmark victory when Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in late 1984.

In Hinman’s words, this was the first really effective interstate fishery management plan, the rare federal regulation born with a full set of teeth. Not only did the Act require the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to come up with a recovery plan for stripers, but it further required that the federal government step in to enforce the plan if states were falling short of compliance.

A virtual moratorium on striped bass fishing ensued, with the Atlantic fishery mostly closed for the next 4-5 years. When the striped bass population numbers came roaring back, Hinman said it demonstrated that not only that we could bring a fish back, but by taking really strong action from the start, we could bring it back much faster.

Hinman wasn’t the only person paying attention to the stripers recovery. Carl Safina adopted several mechanisms in the Striped Bass Act, including quantitative triggers and timetables that would hold managers accountable for a depleted fish stock’s recovery, when drafting what became the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.

A breath of fresh air for fish conservation

While the National Coalition for Marine Conservation began its campaigns for fish, other environmental groups were trying to give air-breathing sea creatures —- including whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles —- some breathing room.

Greenpeace literally launched its anti-whaling campaign in April 1975 when two of its boats set out from Vancouver to scour the North Pacific for whaling ships. A few weeks later, a harpoon fired by a Russian whaler was whizzing over Greenpeace activists’ heads, and most importantly, their video cameras as well. Eight of the 10 gray whales Greenpeace was protecting survived that encounter, but whaling’s days were numbered.

That same year, the Center for Environmental Education created a Whale Protection Fund after one of its founders watched a Jacques Cousteau film on the giants of the ocean. This was the first toe in the water for a group whose emphasis would shift so much in 14 years that it changed its name in 1989 to the Center for Marine Conservation.

The Center for Environmental Education brought Michael Weber to Washington, D.C. in 1980 to lead their brand-new marine habitat and sea turtle programs. Weber had been working on whales for a few years in California, first with Greenpeace and then the Whale Center. But his attention shifted to the massive numbers of sea turtles being caught and killed in shrimp trawl fishing nets in the Gulf of Mexico.

Weber and other environmentalists threw their support behind a new “Turtle-Excluder Device,” or TED, developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to keep turtles out of the shrimp nets. At first, the fisheries regulators asked the fishing community to use the TEDs on a voluntary basis, but by 1985 the conservation community had lost faith that the shrimp fishing industry would adopt the new technology.

In August 1986, Weber and his counterpart at the Environmental Defense Fund, Mike Bean, let the National Marine Fisheries Service know that they were planning to sue the agency for failing to protect sea turtles from the shrimp trawlers as required under the Endangered Species Act. The agency hastily convened a meeting with conservationists and fishing industry representatives, at which they offered a proposal that would have left out most of the Texas coast from requiring the Turtle Excluder Devices. The Texas coast is key habitat for sea turtle breeding; Weber and Bean filed the suit the next day.

But a funny thing happened on the way to legislation. Weber and a few other activists started noticing that the “air-breathers” weren’t the only creatures of the deep that were suffering from bad fishing practices and management.

Weber recalled his first trip aboard a shrimp trawler off South Carolina in 1983, looking for sea turtles caught in the nets and thinking little of the other fish caught and killed by accident.

“I guess the atmosphere is ‘This is the cost of doing business’,” Weber said. “In a sense I didn’t care about fish any more than anybody else. It was just accepted as a part of the business of fishing by the agency people, at the state level and the federal level. The feeling was, ‘That’s how you catch shrimp. How else are you going to catch shrimp?’”

Weber’s epiphany came not on the shrimp boat, but back in a Washington D.C. office as he was researching the NMFS data on finfish bycatch in shrimp trawls in 1986.

“That’s when I started to grasp what was going on,” Weber said. “It was seeing the huge numbers, but also realizing that the agency was aware of the issue. … It was only after I had been exposed to some of the literature that I in a sense understood what I had seen.”

He began raising the finfish bycatch issue in negotiations with fishing industry representatives and NMFS officials.

“Both the agency and the industry itself said, ‘If you try to keep that on the table, there will be no negotiations,’ ” Weber recalled. “I decided to move ahead, to set aside finfish so we could get something done on turtles.”

But he and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Education were on the scent. In 1988, they formed a new fisheries program to begin to grapple with the issue Weber had “set aside” during the turtle negotiations. Weber and his boss, Roger MacManus, decided that to effectively advocate for fish, they needed to get involved with the regional fishery management councils and they needed to do a lot of homework first.

“Then,” Weber says, “it just really took off.”

Ken Hinman at the National Coalition for Marine Conservation welcomed the new recruits to the fish conservation cause. “It was great,” he said. “The groups that came in through the sea turtles, because the issue of fish bycatch was so intertwined, the rhetoric on the issue started changing. It really started becoming about protecting marine wildlife, not just turtles.”

One of Weber’s colleagues at the Center for Environmental Education was Suzanne Iudicello. Iudicello had a background in journalism and Alaska wildlife policy when she came to Washington D.C. to attend law school at George Washington University in 1986. She got a job working with a law firm retained by the Center, which brought her on board after a year.

Iudicello first researched issues affecting “air-breathers” like seals.

“People only cared about stuff with fur and big brown eyes,” she says. “Nobody cared about the fish per se except the fishermen and managers, and most of what they cared about was allocation, while the managers cared about M(aximum) S(ustainable) Y(ield).”

Iudicello said her Alaska experience taught her that fisheries officials were managing fish stocks solely to minimize conflicts between humans. “They weren’t managing for any inherent intrinsic value of the fish or the ecosystem,” she says. “Nobody even talked about that.”

In 1987, another group of “air-breathers” took center stage in conservation conversations: the dolphins that were being slaughtered in tuna fisheries. Sam Labudde got hired on to a Panamanian purse-seine boat fishing for yellowfin tuna off the coast of Costa Rica. Labudde captured on film hundreds of dolphins being caught and brutally killed in the process. His footage, smuggled and shipped to U.S. environmental groups, was soon shown on news broadcasts the world over, prompting international outrage. Just three years later, legislative and consumer pressure had made “dolphin-safe” tuna the norm in U.S. markets.

But still, nobody was talking about the tuna.

A bombshell with blue fins

The fish conservation movement took a giant leap forward in 1991, when Carl Safina roiled the stagnant waters of international fisheries management with a bombshell of a proposal to save bluefin tuna.

With the help of a grant from the Packard Foundation, Safina investigated how to get fish recognized as wildlife by conservation groups and regulatory agencies alike.

Safina’s strategic choice for getting conservation groups to recognize fish as wildlife and to shake regulatory agencies from their insular complacency was to focus on bluefin tuna, a member of the “charismatic megafauna” (big, compelling animals) representing everything that was wrong in fisheries management politically, economically and biologically —- politically because fishermen’s lobbyists pressured management to keep catch quotas high, economically because distant markets in Japan created insanely high prices of tens of thousands of dollars for one fish, and biologically because the result was deep depletion.

A recreational fisherman himself, Safina could draw upon his own observations that the magnificent fish were disappearing. But he also reviewed several scientific reports on the western population of Atlantic bluefin tuna that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas had been ignoring for years. The tuna commission’s own scientists had shown that the breeding population in the west Atlantic had dropped 90 percent between 1975 and 1991, and had declined 24 percent that year.

Hoping to make the commission heed its scientists and its legal obligation to protect bluefin tuna, Safina developed a proposal to list the western population under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ Appendix I. The listing would have halted export of bluefin tuna to the lucrative Japanese seafood market, removing the financial incentive to keep catching the remaining adult fish.

“I wrote the bluefin petition with the hope that one international treaty organization —- CITES —- could force another international treaty organization —- ICCAT —- to act responsibly,” Safina wrote in his 1997 book, Song for the Blue Ocean. “Ideally, threat of action under CITES — which could categorize the fish as endangered — will pressure the tuna commission into reducing catches enough to let the bluefin population rebuild.”

By appealing to the higher power of CITES, Safina had given the fledgling fish conservation campaign something it had not had before: leverage. Lobbying pressure from fishing groups prompted the U.S. to withdraw sponsorship of the proposal, but Safina and Mike Sutton at the World Wildlife Fund successfully convinced Sweden to back it instead.

Under extreme pressure from Japan, Sweden ultimately agreed to drop the proposal if the countries that fished for western Atlantic bluefin tuna —- the U.S., Canada, Morocco and Japan —- agreed to cut down their own catches. When they did, the tuna commission downsized the catch quotas for this tuna population, only to reverse course about two years later, after the heat was off.

But while Safina’s CITES proposal yielded few long-term results for the depleted tuna, it helped galvanize its author and several organizations he towed into the fish conservation movement. Safina gave presentations to several environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund, and the Pew Charitable Trusts that pulled those nonprofits deeper into the waters of marine conservation.

“I used the bluefin story in discussing fisheries at several other mainstream conservation groups,” Safina said. “I told them that fish were a major conservation area being totally neglected. Each of those organizations would go on to play a major role in sustainable fisheries advocacy.”

Landmark lawsuit for groundfish

In recent years, suing the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect fish stocks has become a common practice for the conservation community. That wasn’t the case in June 1991, when the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit that upended fisheries management in the United States.

The environmental law group, which tested the ocean waters in cases involving coastal pollution and drilling for oil and gas, had gotten used to arguing that those threats would affect the fish and fishermen working the waters off New England. In the late 1980s, the lawyers began receiving calls from fishermen —- some anonymous —- asking them to investigate the management of those fisheries, a system that callers said had “completely collapsed.”

The foundation’s research revealed that “things were every bit as grim as the anecdotal information we had been hearing suggested,” says Peter Shelley, CLF’s vice president and the lead attorney in the legal case.

Before suing, the foundation first tried to participate in the New England Fishery Management Council’s planning process for groundfish. The council’s failure to adopt any measures to halt overfishing gave the Foundation both the paper trail and the motivation it needed to proceed with the lawsuit.

“I don’t think anyone expected us to sue,” Shelley says. “They certainly didn’t expect our suit to succeed.”

The suit by the foundation and the Massachusetts Audubon Society forced the courts —- and the public, via a newly interested press —- to consider for the first time the “conservation” part of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

“I think the impact was dramatic,” Shelley says. “I don’t think there are that many legal actions that have the kind of transformative or illuminating effect that this one did.”

Suddenly, across the country, fisheries management —- and the terrible state of the historic New England stocks of cod and groundfish —- was front-page news.

But by August, the foundation had opted to settle the lawsuit before a judge could weigh in. A negotiated settlement with the National Marine Fisheries Service gave the New England council five years to halt overfishing of groundfish.

“We were not anticipating the agency’s recognition of how illegal and out of whack fisheries management had become, and their willingness to settle,” Shelley says.

Shelley says the foundation opted to settle primarily because the fish couldn’t afford to wait the years it would take to get a contested judicial ruling; their management needed reform immediately.

But the next management plan, finally implemented in March 1994, came too late to stop the bleeding. Haddock landings had dropped 96 percent in the Gulf of Maine in just four years; cod and yellowtail flounder stocks were also at precipitously low numbers. In December 1994, the New England council was forced to close parts of Georges Bank and southern New England to fishing.

But the lawsuit did drag other conservation groups in its wake into fisheries management, Shelley says.

“The tide had turned in terms of the public’s interest in good fisheries management,” Shelley says. “A lot of energy got legitimately redirected toward eliminating some of the discretion that had allowed some of the mischief that some of the councils had been up to. … They took what we had started and really ratcheted it up to a much stronger, better law.”

Foundations lay the foundation

Without the push and pull and money provided by a few forward-thinking philanthropic foundations, the movement to conserve wild fish might never have gotten off the ground.

Suzanne Iudicello, then with the Center for Marine Conservation, remembers how little interest fisheries issues generated in the late 1980s among the public at large and conservation organizations.

“What turned it around, to be crass, was money,” Iudicello said. She credited early grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts as key to supporting the early work of leaders like Carl Safina, Ken Hinman, Mike Sutton, Gerry Leape and herself.

“Once we got the money on board, then everybody else had a marine program,” she said. “In prior years, we used to have to beg and plead and pester people to sign on to letters about fishing nets. Poof! All of a sudden, all of those people were now having fisheries programs.”

A pair of philanthropists stand out among the several who drew the conservation community’s attention to ocean fish. C. Wolcott Henry, president and director of The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation and The Henry Foundation and a top underwater photographer, and Josh Reichert, Director of the Environment Program at Pew Charitable Trusts, helped plant the seeds for what has become a movement.

Leading the way for fellow foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and others, the Munson Foundation has funded fish conservation projects at existing nonprofits and research by scientists exploring the state of the world’s fisheries and the health of global reefs. Its grants launched fisheries programs at the Center for Marine Conservation (now the Ocean Conservancy) and the World Wildlife Fund and supported the work of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, among others. The Munson Foundation has long supported the work of Carl Safina and his co-workers.

After a successful early career in management consulting in the private sector, Henry was hired in 1986 to guide the distribution of the Munson Foundation’s funds. Edith Munson had not specified where she wanted her money to go when she died, so Henry searched for a philanthropic area where the money would do the most good. A longtime diver and lover of coral reefs, he opted to invest in marine conservation when few organizations were devoting much attention or funds that way. The foundation bearing his own name devotes all of its monies to marine conservation initiatives.

Henry described it as the “empty room” theory of investment, whereby foundations seeking to make the biggest impact find a cause previously neglected by the nonprofit community.

“We got into it because nobody else was,” Henry said. “When you have an issue that nobody is really doing anything about, neither the groups nor the foundations, you have to give a bunch of seed grants to set up various groups. You also have to show that it’s something that is not only worth doing, but it’s interesting. That’s what we’ve spent 15 to 17 years doing.”

In the early 1990s, Henry enlisted the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, a grantmakers forum established in 1987 to focus on the conservation and restoration of biological resources, to the marine conservation cause. He established a Marine Working Group, dubbed the “Marines,” to focus on ocean conservation issues, and fish started appearing on the agenda, not just the menu.

He brought fish conservation experts to meetings like the Environmental Grantmaker Association’s annual meeting, where they could count their audiences on their fingers in the early 1990s.

“We did it every year,” Henry said. “And we usually got put against the spotted owl,” so marine issues were slow to catch on. But eventually, they did, and marine conservation is now one of the biggest and fastest growing sectors of philanthropic investment.

Henry said he finds “great satisfaction” in the growth of the fish conservation field, but added, “The problem is, the charts are still going down.”

Henry said people working on fish conservation need to recognize they’re in a long-term struggle. He espouses viewing the work as a “Hundred Years War” in order to forestall burnout. “You have to make sure it’s set out that far off so the battles are bearable, and if we lose them, we don’t lose the energy and give up,” he said.

Josh Reichert’s long-term experience allows him a similar perspective.

“When one looks back at the last 10 years, the recognition that we’ve got big problems is greater than a decade ago. We take a lot of pride in that,” Reichert said. “But I think that it’s going to take us years to really turn the situation around. I wish I didn’t have to say that.”

As director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Environment Program for the last 15 years, Reichert has been working on fish conservation longer than most. What’s more, he and his colleagues at Pew have probably designed more programs, publications and research projects out of their Philadelphia offices than any other organization.

Among the marine conservation initiatives that can trace their roots back to Reichert and Pew are: the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation, SeaWeb, the Ocean Law Project, Oceana, the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, numerous groundbreaking scientific research efforts including the Sea Around Us project, the Give Swordfish a Break campaign, the Restore America’s Estuaries coalition, and most recently, the Pew Oceans Commission.

A few of the achievements of this impressive roster would warrant a mention. To consider all of the work to raise awareness about the health of the oceans that Pew has funded over the last 15 years is staggering.

Reichert started at Pew in 1990, bringing with him wide-ranging experience in international development, environmental protection and advocacy for indigenous peoples. Trained as an anthropologist, Reichert’s work brought him into close contact with Latin American indigenous people trying to maintain their low-impact lifestyles in the face of technological, social and economic change. That exposure, coupled with a love for the coastline fueled by his childhood on the San Francisco coastline, helped fuel his passion for preserving the environment.

“I spent many years in Latin America working for the Indians, for whom natural resources issues are a big deal,” Reichert said. “They still practice their traditional lifestyles, living off the land. The challenges facing them are not only legal ones, but questions of how do they retain sovereignty and way of life?”

He brought the analytical skills he learned in the rainforest to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and it quickly led him towards marine protection. Like Henry, Reichert convinced his colleagues at Pew that marine conservation issues were a underdeveloped sector of the environmental movement, where in his words, “highly focused, disciplined work could pay off over a long period of time.”

In 1991, Reichert enlisted Carl Safina to help draft an agenda for how Pew could direct its funding and energies. That year he also convened the discussions that would lead to the creation of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which would go on to lead a campaign that ultimately transformed fisheries regulation with the 1996 passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act.

Reichert’s growing interest in marine conservation led him to convert the Pew Scholars Program in Conservation and the Environment to one focused strictly on marine issues, now known as the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation. He sought to create a sense of community among the disparate scientists working on marine conservation.

“Most of people working on marine issues around the world had never talked to each other,” Reichert said. “In contrast, the people who were working on tropical deforestation had opportunities to meet all the time.”

In 1996, Reichert and Pew launched SeaWeb, which began with a “spokesteam” of ocean experts touring the country to address the major newspapers’ editorial boards. The effort sparked a big increase in coverage of ocean issues in the mainstream media.

But its likely if you’ve read about the depletion of the world’s fish in the last few years, the research behind the article was funded by Pew. In just one recent example, a paper by Ransom Myers and Boris Worm that appeared in the May 14, 2003 edition of Nature concluded that commercial fishing has caused 90 percent of the large fish to disappear from the world’s oceans. That study received massive media attention. The final report of the Pew Oceans Commission, released in June, was perhaps the only other event of recent months to draw a similar amount of media attention to marine conservation.

Sustained effort yields the Sustainable Fisheries Act

When President Clinton signed the Sustainable Fisheries Act into law in 1996, the landscape of fisheries management in the United States was forever changed. How did the Republican-dominated 106th Congress come to pass the most sweeping conservation laws for the oceans’ living resources in U.S. history?

The rumblings for change began in 1990 and 1991. Josh Reichert at the Pew Charitable Trusts convened a series of discussions among a small group of environmentalists who had been active in the marine conservation battles of the late 1980s-early 1990s. Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Gerry Leape of Greenpeace, Carl Safina of the National Audubon Society, Mike Sutton of the World Wildlife Foundation and Suzanne Iudicello and Harry Upton of the Center for Marine Conservation began discussing how to improve the Magnuson-Stevens Act when it came up for reauthorization in 1992.

All had been frustrated by the lack of enforcement of the Magnuson Act’s meager conservation provisions, some while working on bycatch issues in driftnet and trawl fisheries, others working to protect depleted species like bluefin tuna. Reichert brought them to Philadelphia to discuss strategy, and from these discussions the Marine Fish Conservation Network was born.

“There was a recognition at that point that of all the things affecting the marine environment, everything paled in comparison to fishing,” Reichert said.

“The Magnuson Act had some of the right things in there, but there was no enforcement,” remembered Hinman. On the “big three” issues that would eventually form the basis of the network’s agenda —- overfishing, bycatch and marine habitat —- Hinman said “things seemed to be getting worse.”

So the group hammered out an agenda tightly focused on those “big three” issues upon which they could all agree. The narrow agenda enabled the network’s founders to recruit not only other environmental organizations to their cause, but also several sportfishing groups and even some commercial fishermen’s associations.

Under the leadership of Bill Mott, who was hired to lead the new organization, and a steering committee that included the founders, the fledgling network began to lobby for conservation-minded reform of the Magnuson Act.

Mott said the public would prove especially receptive to the bycatch problem. “When they started hearing about the huge numbers of animals killed, well, Americans don’t like waste, and they don’t like to waste animals,” he said.

The network’s handful of staffers and steering committee launched a grassroots campaign to drum up public support for fish conservation and pressure Congress. To that end, the network sent two activist educators on a 19,000-mile, six-month, 28-state cross-country trip to promote its agenda. At stops far from the coasts, the network’s young team inspired audiences unfamiliar with fisheries issues to write their Congresspersons in support of reforming the Magnuson Act.

“It’s significant when a senator from North Dakota gets a certain number of letters from people on fisheries,” Mott said. “He’s not used to that pressure.”

Nor were members of the Congressional committees used to hearing from conservation lobbyists on fisheries issues. Several environmentalists said that targeting these rank-and-file committee members, rather than the chairmen that the fishing industry lobbyists had focused on, made their efforts that much more successful.

“We had committee members from landlocked states introducing amendments,” Iudicello said. “We went to guys who never even knew how fish were caught and got them to introduce amendments.”

When a young Republican representative from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Wayne Gilchrest, agreed to sponsor legislation that would transform the Magnuson Act, the campaign began to yield its richest fruit. In May 1994, Gilchrest introduced a bill, based largely on the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s agenda, that quickly gained more than 100 co-sponsors and seemed destined for quick victory. But when leadership of Congress changed parties with the Republican sweep in the November 1994 “Contract with America” elections, momentum behind fisheries reform fizzled.

The network’s tireless staff kept at it, targeting print and radio media. (A wistful Mott recalled, a day after her death in June, the public service announcement that Katherine Hepburn had recorded for the network “in her cracking voice.”) The network took out ads on Washington D.C. subway platforms, prime spots to catch the eyes of Congressional staffers, Mott said. They sent Greenpeace volunteers canvassing door-to-door throughout key Congressional districts, and bought full-page ads in the hometown newspapers of key Representatives. Scientists on the network’s board gave impromptu biology lessons to politicians in their offices on Capitol Hill.

“It was definitely a roller-coaster ride,”said Mott, who moved both his office and his home four times in four years. “Ninety percent of the time we were on orange to red alert. There was never any downtime.”

Iudicello added, “It took four years of 24-7 effort. Don’t let anybody tell you it was a lucky alignment of stars or something like that. It was hard, hard work.”

But the campaign caught the opposition napping. The recreational and commercial fishing lobbies, so accustomed to fighting with each other over who would get what share of the fish “resource,” were not united enough to fend off what became a growing groundswell of support for fisheries reform.

“The environmental community was used to working together,” Iudicello said. “We’re good at cooperative work: We’re a bunch of ‘communist pinkos’ anyway,” she added laughing.

“Nobody paid any attention until we had created a juggernaut,” she said. “They were in a position of fighting to defend what little they had left.”

“They had no real counter agenda,” said Hinman. “Because things were so bad, it was very hard for people to argue that these things weren’t needed. Because the coalition was so broad, it was a lot easer for individual Congresspeople to get on board.”

In May 1995, the House Resources Committee approved another bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevenson Act. This one contained far less of the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s agenda, leaving out important elements like Rep.Gilchrest’s amendments to close a loophole allowing overfishing.

But over the summer, the “Contract with America” started to grate on the American public, especially what many perceived as the Republican assault on the environment. Republicans needed an environmental issue which they could support. Enter the Magnuson Act reauthorization. In October 1995, the House passed the bill on a vote of 384 to 30.

Otherwise conservative Republicans “were able to pursue (passing the Sustainable Fishing Act) because they weren’t indebted to the industries,” said Lee Crockett, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at the time and later the second Executive Director of the network. “It was a free green vote.”

In early 1996, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation began debating its own reauthorization bill, a more conservation-friendly bill introduced by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens called the Sustainable Fisheries Act. Through the summer, the two houses struggled to reconcile the differences in the two bills.

On September 19, 1996, the Senate passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act by unanimous vote and the House passed it on a 384-30 vote. On October 11, President Clinton signed into law a sweeping set of amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The new law “changed the landscape nationally,” Hinman said. For the first time, clear guidelines for when a species was being overfished were written into law, as were specific benchmarks to measure recovery. Moreover, the eight regional fishery management councils were required to develop rebuilding plans for depleted fish populations. And the National Marine Fisheries Service was charged with preparing a survey of how the fish species under its “protection” were faring.

“It could be strengthened, but it really did turn things around,” Hinman said. “I think it has been downplayed too much by conservation community, because we’re trying to get more change. I don’t think we credit ourselves with how much we did change things. … It doesn’t change the fact that we still have a lot to do, but things have turned around tremendously. Things are actually getting better; before things were just getting worse.”

With the signing of the Sustainable Fishing Act, the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s primary work was done. The group disbanded after a celebration.

But two years later, the network was reformed. With a rider in Congress seeking to change the border with Mexico to exempt 6 miles of coastline from U.S. regulation, participants felt that it was time to bring back an organization that had proved so successful. Again, Josh Reichert gathered a group of key players together to discuss their strategy, this time in the Rockefeller Estate in Poconico.

“What we’re trying to do now is change the mindset of the agency, change the whole focus” of NMFS, said Crockett. “Before the Sustainable Fisheries Act, it was all ‘promote fishing.’ The SFA tried to balance it out. What we’re trying to say now is ‘Screw all that, conservation should be your top priority. Extraction of the resource should be secondary.’”

... to be continued, with an update from the last few years, which takes into account the pair of Oceans Commissions, the Pew and the U.S. commission appointed by President Bush, and the ongoing work to implement the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.


• ALL of Weber 2002, p182-190, is relevant background.
• For North Atlantic/Canada fishery/conservation history, see: “Management of the northern cod fishery: Chronology – key events and publications,” available on the web at
• If interested in Iceland, a good chronology of the fishing regulation and especially the ITQ system there can be found at
• Earth Crash Earth Spirit website has decent chronology of overfishing news articles from late 90s-2002.

  • American University Trade and Environment Database (TED). (
  • Australian Marine Conservation Society website
  • Beazley, Karen, Martin Willison and Marty King. 2002. “Marine Protected Areas Strategies for Nova Scotia.” In Wild Earth Winter 2002-2003 “Freedom of the Seas.”
  • Benchmarks 1990-2002. Living Oceans Program, National Audubon Society.
  • Brown, Joshua. 2002. “Endangered Right Whales: Under the Shadow of the Ships – A Conversation with Amy Knowlton and Moira Brown.” In Wild Earth Winter 2002-2003 “Freedom of the Seas.”
  • CBC Radio of Newfoundland and Labrador. 2002. “A partial chronology of the 200-mile limit question.” Available online at
  • Chasis, Sarah, Peter Lehner and Isaac Flattau. 1999. “A Decade After the Exxon Valdez: Inadequate Federal Action on Oil Spill Prevention.” National Resources Defense Council. Available online at
  • Conservation Law Foundation. “CLF Through the Years: Milestones and Major Matters” on The Conservation Law Foundation’s web page,
  • Cummings, Brendan. 2003. “Unfulfilled Promise: Using the ESA to Protect Imperiled Marine Wildlife.” In Wild Earth Winter 2002-2003 “Freedom of the Seas.”
  • Dorsey, Eleanor. “The Road to Groundfish Collapse and Turning the Corner to Recovery: A brief history of the New England Fisheries Crisis.” on The Conservation Law Foundation’s web page,
  • Fairlie, Simon, Mike Hagler and Brian O’Riordan. 1995. “The Politics of Overfishing.” In The Ecologist. Vol. 25, No. 2/3, March/April, May/June 1995.
  • Field, Colleen. 2003. “Management of the northern cod fishery: Chronology – key events and publications.” Center for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Available on the web at
  • Greenpeace web site. “A Steller sea lion chronology.” Available online at
  • Hanna, Susan. 2003. “Institutional Evolution in Coastal Zones: Historical Paths and Contemporary Redirection.” Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics,Oregon State University. Available on the web at
  • Hildreth, Richard. 2002. “U.S. and International Fisheries Law: The Role of Sustainability, Biodiversity Protection, Externality Internalization, and Precaution.” In Managing Marine Fisheries in the United States: Proceedings of the Pew Oceans Commissions Workshop on Marine Fishery Management, Seattle, Washington, 18-19 July 2001. Pew Oceans Commission. Arlington, VA.
  • Hinman, Ken. July 7, 2003. Personal communication with head of National Coalition for Marine Conservation.
  • Myers, R.A., J.A. Hutchings, and N.J. Barrowman. 1997 Why do fish stocks collapse? The example of cod in Atlantic Canada. Ecological Applications 7:91-106.
  • The Ocean Project. “About Us.” From their website, available online at
  • Pauly, D., V. Christensen, J. Dalsgaard, R. Forese and F. Torres, Jr. 1998. Fishing down marine food webs. Science 279:860-863.
  • Safina, Carl. 1992. A Primer on Conserving Marine Resources. 3rd Edition, 32 pp. National Audubon Society Living Oceans Program, New York.
  • …. 6/30/02 (?). Personal communication.
  • SeaWeb. 2002. “Managing Fisheries on the High Seas” on SeaWeb’s Briefing Book. Available online at
  • SeaWeb 1998. “Shark-Finning” on SeaWeb’s Briefing Book. Available online at
  • Sutton, Michael. “Consumer Power Bringing New Hope for World Fisheries.” In Living Oceans News, Winter 1997/98.
  • Weber, Michael. 2002. From Abundance to Scarcity: A History of U.S. Marine Fisheries Policy. Island Press: Washington, D.C.
  • …… 7/2/03. Personal communication.

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