A New Voice on the Fishery Council

The New England Fishery Management Council tackles controversial issues such as catch limits and how to manage a dwindling resource. UConn historian Matt McKenzie brings a cultural and historical perspective to the table.

Repairing fishing nets, after fishing the journey.

Repairing fishing nets, after fishing the journey.

Matthew McKenzie, assistant professor of history. (Daniel Buttrey/UConn Photo)
Matthew McKenzie, assistant professor of history. (Daniel Buttrey/UConn Photo)

Matt McKenzie, assistant professor of history and coordinator of the American Studies program, was recently named to the New England Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils that works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to manage ocean fish stocks. McKenzie fills the Connecticut seat on the 21-member council. Most of the council members are from the sport or commercial fisheries industry or government; McKenzie is a rare academic member. His research focuses on the cultural and historical roles of the fishing industry in New England.

This spring, controversy surrounded NOAA’s actions setting new fish stock limits on the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank as part of a new sector allotment system designed to prevent overfishing. The debate over catch limits has been heated, involving environmentalists, fishermen, and others.

McKenzie shared his perspective with Cindy Weiss of CLAS Today.

What is the main issue facing the New England Council and where do you see it headed?

I see two main issues facing the council, one short term and one long term. In the short run, adapting the fishery to both a new management system called catch shares while also reacting to unexpectedly low stocks assessments for some species pose immediate and urgent challenges. In the long run, however, I see the most pressing issue as bringing into practice ecosystem-based fisheries management.

I’m cautiously optimistic in the council’s ability to respond to these challenges, however. The process is more actively embracing cooperative research (wherein fishermen and fisheries scientists work together to try to get an idea of how the marine ecosystem is faring). This brings greater transparency to the process, and will yield, I believe, better information. From there, we will get better policy.

Describe the role of the Council and its part in policymaking.

Repairing fishing nets. Catch limits have been hotly debated.
Repairing fishing nets. Catch limits have been hotly debated.

Since 1976, the council’s job has been to provide a forum for all stakeholders in the fishery to engage the management of those resources – fishermen, conservationists, scientists, regulators, and the general public. As marine resources are held in common, all citizens have a right to voice their opinions and perspectives either in person or in writing. This role – providing a clear transparent process by which fisheries issues are addressed – I see as one of the council’s most important. The council is also tasked with allocating how, where, and how intensely fishermen can fish. That’s not an easy task, and given those decisions’ immediate and material consequences for fishermen and the ecosystem, the council’s transparent process becomes even more essential.

Are we at a crisis point, and can overfishing be reversed and stocks renewed? And will New England’s commercial fisheries survive?

New England’s commercial fisheries will survive – it is my job to ensure that they do. What they look like, however, is the largest unknown. Some stocks are facing some grim numbers this year, and the council has been working hard over the winter to try to sustain both fish and fishermen caught in that bind. Less well covered in the press, however, are the stocks that have recovered. Scallops, for example, were all but moribund in the early 1980s. Now, through the work of fishermen, scientists, and regulators, that fishery is one of the best managed in New England. Some groundfish stocks are on the way to a similar future, I hope. We often don’t hear about such successes (even if they must be qualified in some way), but those instances do exist.

Ultimately, we, as consumers, dictate how fishermen fish and for which species. … We need to take ownership of the fact that fishermen work on our behalf, and when we do, then making changes will be much easier.

Do you think the public is aware of the issues we’re facing with fishing limits and fish stock depletion? What role will consumers play?

A chalk board lists the prices of fish.
A chalk board lists the prices of fish.

Consumers played an enormous role in fomenting the fisheries crisis and in perpetuating it. Ultimately, we, as consumers, dictate how fishermen fish and for which species. And for too long, consumers have been ignored as the most important reason why a commercial fishery exists. We need to take ownership of the fact that fishermen work on our behalf, and when we do, then making changes will be much easier.

You grew up on Cape Cod – how do the issues you will be dealing with affect livelihoods and our coastal economies in the New England states?

Fishing is about a lot more than just fish and fishermen. I watched my town lose most of its fishing fleet in the 1980s, along with the many of the businesses and jobs that served the boats. So I saw clearly how far inshore fishing offshore can run. Fishing brings decent-paying, year-round jobs that often provide benefits to their employees. Such jobs are surprisingly rare in parts of coastal New England, where in some places, the year-round population can barely support local schools. A well managed fishery can help keep these towns alive year-round, and that will bring immediate social, economic, political, and cultural benefits to areas where seasonal poverty runs hard and deep.

How will your research background be useful to the Council? Are you aware of any other academics who have served?

The council does benefit from several other members from the academy, but most of those come from fisheries science and the social sciences. They bring an in-depth knowledge of their respective fields that provides much of the backbone for council discussions. What I have studied as a historian, however, is slightly different. Over the past year as a UConn Humanities Institute fellow, I had the time see how my research –exploring how fishermen, scientists, and regulators in New England have come to understand the marine environment differently – carried immediate relevancy to current fisheries problems. I think that perspective gives me an edge, in that it allows me to see common ground more easily, perhaps, than others might. Once you can find common ground, discussions can follow, and therein the hard work gets done.

Given your background in studying the issues that the Council faces, are there changes in fisheries management that you would like to see?

We’ve just embarked on a new era in fisheries management in New England – namely the adoption of catch shares. We are only just starting to see how that policy is changing things, so it is too early to offer any bold-sweeping recommendations. That said, however, one thing I will be seeking to do is to build a community of environmentalists, fishermen, and fishing community organizers to rigorously explore the tools that a flexible, small-boat fleet can offer for more effective and sustainable fisheries management. Many believe smaller, nearer-shore boats can provide some advantages that the larger vessels can’t offer because of their size. We need to examine, however, whether a fleet of both large, offshore vessels and smaller, inshore boats can give us finer-grain management options we don’t see right now. That can help us sustain the fishery and the fishing communities – of all sizes – along the coast.

Read more: McKenzie has published a book, Clearing the Coastline: The 19th Century Ecological and Cultural Transformation of Cape Cod (University Press of New England, 2010), that examines the complex relationships between humans, the sea, and the resource that once was required for survival on the Cape – fish.