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Crafting a Vision for the Future of Fisheries

The federal law that mandates fishery management sets ten national standards that all fishing regulations must meet. But those standards are somewhat vague and sometimes even contradictory. They set managers the difficult task of protecting fish stocks while simultaneously preserving fishing communities. They’re also supposed to ensure that fishing rights are distributed fairly and equitably.

Not surprisingly, new regulations are often criticized for failing to give due weight to one of these competing standards. The New England Fishery Management Council has often been accused of employing a "fire, aim, ready" approach to management. And they're not alone. Rick Robins, chair of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, says that region was for a long time stuck in a reactive, rather than pro-active, mode.

To break out of that mode, Robins said the Mid-Atlantic council decided it needed to stop and actually think about what they wanted to accomplish. In 2011, they launched a Visioning and Strategic Planning Project. In less than a year, more than 1,500 stakeholders - through online surveys, small group meetings, and position letters - contributed their thoughts about the priorities and values that should shape mid-Atlantic fisheries policy. That information was boiled down to a vision statement:

Healthy and productive marine ecosystems supporting thriving, sustainable marine fisheries that provide the greatest overall benefit to stakeholders.

and four strategic goals that form the foundation for the ten-year strategic plan the council is now finalizing.

Robins says the visioning project has improved communication between fishermen and regulators, and has already changed the course of some regulatory developments. However, he cautions that it was a gargantuan effort that might be too much for a region, like New England, which is currently in crisis mode.

Visioning efforts in New England are in their infancy. The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance ran a Fleet Visioning Project in 2006, and just recently wrapped up a Who Fishes Matters campaign emphasizing the need to preserve the diversity of boat sizes and gear types in New England's fleets.

But there isn't even agreement that New England needs to work on a vision. Vito Giacalone, Chair of Governmental Affairs for the Northeast Seafood Coalition and President of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, says New England already has all the vision it needs. He argues it's a matter of putting that vision into action at the community level - something to which his organizations and others, like Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance, are dedicated.

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