Fish management policy – what Mama didn’t tell you

Digging Deeper  — A Primer on Fish Management Policy Making

We crazies who love fish and fishing are really good at fighting among ourselves over hatchery fish or allowable fishing gear.  Sometimes, we get quite engaged picking at each other over our favored viewpoints.  Some people label folks with divergent views about hatchery fish as arrogant, egotistical, delusional, irresponsible, greedy, impractical,  low-lifers, or worse.  I didn’t make these labels up.  I’ve heard them all spoken within the last week.

Great.  Name calling really helps.  What a bunch of babies we can all be.

Problem is, our in-fighting draws attention away from effectively challenging habitat degradation and excessive harvest rates on salmon and steelhead populations.  If passionate anglers would challenge management policies that destroy wild fish habitat and allow over-fishing as fiercely as they fight about hatcheries and fishing gear, there would be (I believe) a bigger runs of salmon and steelhead returning to our rivers.

Some of the arguing and name calling is probably just for sport, because certain personalities relish conflict.  Some of the debate is intended to  influence fish managers to change policies and programs.  Many people who want to change the system don’t understand what it takes to implement change in management policy.

Dr. Robert T. Lackey has devoted considerable effort pondering and describing the anatomy of ecological policy decisions.  Management of hatcheries is a prime example of such policy implementation.

Consider that the hatchery system currently in place here in the Pacific Northwest has been evolving since the late 1800s.  The hatchery system consists of physical infrastructure and, perhaps more important, a perceptual infrastructure.  The perceptual infrastructure is at least as complex as the physical infrastructure.  Scientists, fish managers, anglers, and an elusive public have their respective, sometimes mutually exclusive set of perceptions regarding hatchery salmon.  Each of these groups I mentioned, and more, is divided regarding hatcheries, with attitudes that range from 1) hatcheries are all good; 2) hatcheries are all bad; and 3) everywhere between #1 and #2, including complete indifference to the issue.

Persons in positions of authority make policy choices that affect hatchery fish and wild fish every day.  Fund this program – or don’t.  Fund this research; release such and such a number of this or that species, here or there; use domesticated or wild broodstock; make promises to constituents; react to pressure in support or against the status quo – or don’t.  The push-pull goes on each day.

Bob lackey wrote an interesting paper, published in Fisheries in June 2006 – Axioms of Ecological Policy.  He noted, I think correctly, “…many current ecological policy problems are contentious and socially wrenching.”

Dr. Lackey goes on to list nine axioms that characterize contentious ecological policy decisions.  I will list each of these, underlined, and provide a short editorial comment.  Understanding these ecological policy axioms is crucial to anyone who wants to influence the current hatchery management structure.

The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game.  I take this to mean that changes to the hatchery management system will create winners and losers.  Any change from the status quo will not be well-received by everyone.

The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs.  I take this to mean that managers are less concerned about whether the benefit to cost ratio of the present hatchery management system is positive or negative – whether hatcheries make or lose money – than they are about how the benefits and costs get spread among constituents and the public.  Who gets the benefits?  Who pays?

The most politically viable policy choice spreads the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population.  I see this as an acknowledgment that government agencies survive by not creating new enemies.  If so, management decisions that create more winners than losers will get the nod.  Similarly, policy change that creates winners among a politically powerful group and losers among a politically disenfranchised group carries relatively little risk to policy makers, and is therefore considered a viable policy change by the decision makers.

Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making.  I take this to mean that policy managers listen selectively.  Constituents who are likely to be displaced by a prospective change in hatchery management may be given more consideration than constituents who are likely to receive future, difficult-to-predict benefits.

Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences.  I take this to mean that more than a few people who advocate any particular action regarding hatchery management will cherry-pick their scientific facts so as to support their preferred policy choice.

Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive.  I take this to mean that there is unlikely to ever be enough science regarding hatchery and wild fish interactions to alleviate the angst of fish policy managers.   Science is great, but it doesn’t make change from the status quo painless.

Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments.  I take this to mean that advocates for or against the hatchery status quo might actually be more successful advancing their propositions by painting people representing other viewpoints as “creepy people” rather than fairly communicating recommendations and the information.  This is a particularly troubling axiom, and I hope it is wrong, because I always counsel policy advocacy that is respectful, separates science from opinion, acknowledges the complexity of competing policy choices, and generally avoids eye poking.

If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably irrelevant in decision making.  I take this to mean that the social and interpersonal aspects of policy management are more important, ultimately, than scientific information.  My professional experience and the historical record of fish management suggest that science precedes management action by years if not decades. Plenty of information is usually available to support change from management status quo, but management policy changes are not implemented until an ecological or social crisis occurs.

The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values.  I take this to mean that people advocating any particular policy actions are likely to engage in intricate, mind-numbing debates over word definition rather than focusing on the spirit of proposed management actions.  If true, this amounts to delaying and distracting decision makers as a tactic to achieve a desired policy outcome.

So there you have it. Dr. Lackey has described the policy management playing field pretty clearly.  We live in a democracy but not all constituents are equally represented.  Science won’t cast the final vote.  Debates over policy choices could get personal, maybe nasty. Some folks will try to hide the pea.  People who want to influence the status quo of fish management, or maintain it as is, need to understand the game.

I would add one final comment regarding management policy.  Future generations of constituents are virtually disenfranchised in the policy deliberation process.  Battles over management of hatchery and wild fish will create the environmental and social landscape that our children will inherit.  But our kids don’t get a vote in the process.


2 thoughts on “Fish management policy – what Mama didn’t tell you

  1. Powerful stuff, as usual, Jay. Thanks very much.

    We get the fisheries management we deserve, in my opinion. The actions of managers are just a projection of our values as a society. I’m an optimist by nature, but I am not optimistic about our chances of winning the hearts and minds of most anglers. I contend that serious anglers, as a class of people, are generally grumpy, selfish malcontents. Of course there are noteable exceptions, like yourself. Many, if not most of us, have allowed our passion for angling to slide into addiction and/or abuse (yes, I’m projecting). We are a bunch of addicts forced to share our drugs. Add an over-arching layer of world-view politics (left vs. right, enviros vs. wise-use, etc.) and you have a real mess.

    I don’t agree with the fear-tactic premise often floated that anglers will lose their rights if they can’t work together. But our fishing opportunities will continue the trend toward domestication if we cater to the lowest common denominator. I have just about given up on the larger angling public who consistently demonstrate their greed and blatant disregard for native fishes and healthy watersheds.

    Instead, I think that conservationist-anglers need to forge alliances with non-fishing groups that are dedicated to the preservation of wild places and critters. There are much larger voting blocks to work with than sportfishers.

    My $.02, and worth every penny…

    1. Rob. Don’t give up. Not yet. Alliances are good. Build ’em as instinct guides you. Expect surprises along the way.

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