One of our democracy’s core beliefs is that nations make better decisions when citizens are informed and engaged. In this spirit, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), like many other landmark laws that govern our natural resources, places particular importance on public involvement in the management of America’s marine fisheries. Under the MSA, regional management councils — which are tasked with making recommendations to the secretary of commerce regarding the management of marine fisheries — are composed of people from local communities, meetings are open to everyone and public testimony is a valued part of the decision-making process.
The MSA’s tradition of openness and public input is at odds with a proposed “data confidentiality” rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service that could revise federal guidelines on the release of fishing data. Rather than enhancing public participation, NOAA’s proposed rule would severely restrict public access to important information needed to ensure that valuable marine resources are being managed sustainably.
U.S. ocean fish populations are a multibillion-dollar public resource, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs in the recreational and commercial fishing industries, and playing an essential role in the health of coastal ecosystems. Every year, NOAA invests millions of taxpayer dollars in data collection on commercial fishing vessels by professional observers, who record what fish are caught, where they are caught, and how fishing gear may damage other ocean wildlife. This information is essential to citizens’ understanding of the impacts of fishing. It also enables us to participate effectively in management decisions to help ensure wise care of our marine wildlife and ecosystems.
Under NOAA’s proposed rule, members of the public could be required to ask permission from private fishing permit holders (who have a direct financial stake in the issue) to access information about their fishing activities and its impacts on ocean wildlife, even though taxpayer funds support efforts to collect observer data on our $5.3 billion commercial ocean fisheries. And the rule would allow the information to be provided in an aggregated form that if aggregated into too large a geographic area, for example, would disguise specific impacts on ocean resources.
Americans have a right to know how NOAA proposes to provide data and whether it will be presented in a format that’s easily understandable and that facilitates public participation in the protection of our ocean fish. As someone who has helped write rules at NOAA, I know how hard it is to craft balanced proposals. I believe this rule, as currently drafted, not only could seriously undermine the public’s trust in fishery management decisions, but also reduce the quality of those decisions by excluding key stakeholders.
Our nation’s marine resources are best managed when fishermen, nongovernmental organizations, scientists, and the general public can access the same data and work together for the common good. NOAA should withdraw this flawed proposal and work to create one that will improve public access to fisheries information so that our oceans can be managed effectively.