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Networking: Eric Schwaab

Director, National Marine Fisheries Service Silver Spring, Md.

By James Wright
May 05, 2011

With just a little more than a year under his belt as director of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Eric Schwaab seems quite comfortable in the deep end. Last May, East Coast fishermen began working under a new set of rules called sector-based management, which set strict catch limits on popular, iconic groundfish species like cod, haddock and flounder to ensure their long-term sustainability. While the new regulatory regime has been the source of considerable consternation, Schwaab says it’s bound to work. After all, catch shares have worked in other regions like Alaska.

I met with Schwaab at the International Boston Seafood Show in March — where he announced that all domestic fisheries are on the path to sustainability — to discuss his first year on the job, how important good science is to the implementation of tough regulations and the progress that NMFS has made in ending overfishing in domestic waters.


WRIGHT: Are catch shares going to work with East Coast fisheries, and do you think fishermen will embrace them as time goes on?

SCHWAAB: We know that fishermen are embracing them as time goes on. We see evidence of that in fisheries all over the country. The important thing for us, particularly in New England, is to separate the challenges associated with setting catch limits that end overfishing and ensure the rebirth of stocks from the implementation of the management tool, which is sector-based management in this case, and catch shares. So, what we think that sector-based management does here is focus our attention on controlling the output of the catch. That unleashes the innovation and the business acumen of the fishermen to do a better job to more effectively run their businesses, minimize bycatch, maximize the harvest and the dockside value of the targeted catch and thereby continue to manage businesses effectively. So, despite the fact that, across the groundfish fisheries, catches are down because of rebuilding requirements, revenue is up. Now we don’t want to attribute that necessarily entirely to sector-based management, but we think it is part of it.

Fishermen describe you as being tough but fair. How challenging is it sometimes to get their cooperation on new management measures?

Well I think we have to start with a shared understanding of the status of the stocks, so science and acceptance of the validity of the science is the foundation of any kind of conversation around management. And then you, at the other end of the spectrum, recognize the shared goals at hand, which is sustainable stocks producing at a high level. One of the things we often lack is that shared starting point. But if you have that shared starting point, if you have a commitment to and investment in the science, then moving from that foundation to the business opportunities associated with well-managed fisheries is less challenging.

NMFS has set aggressive target dates for depleted fisheries to rebuild. Are you satisfied with the progress to date?

First of all, it was the [Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] that set the deadlines to end overfishing and to rebuild stocks, and we have been, along with the councils and fishermen all across the country, aggressive in pursuing that work. And we are very satisfied with the progress we have already made. We have put in place or will by the end of this year have put in place catch limits and accountability measures for all the major domestic fisheries to ensure not only ending of overfishing but prevent occurrence of overfishing and in the case where rebuilding is necessary to achieve that rebuilding.

How can the United States more effectively address illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, both domestically and abroad? 

There are many facets of that, some of which is sort of sharing databases and understanding and accounting for points of origin more aggressively internationally. 

There is obviously, clearly, a big enforcement component of that and we’ve faced, over the last year or so, a lot of challenges with respect to our enforcement program and we are doubling our efforts to make sure that we have a fair and effective enforcement program that not only protects and maintains a level playing field for fishermen within domestic fisheries but for U.S. fishermen in global markets. And of course another piece of that is the capacity to build overseas. We do spend a fair amount of time — and it’s time and money well spent — working with our counterparts around the world to help them build the kind of capacity to conduct the kind of enforcement programs to achieve the global compliance I think we all want.

What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make as NMFS chief?

That’s a big question. We’ve made a lot of tough ones. It’s difficult to pick out just one. All of the decisions that we make that affect U.S. fishermen, family businesses and local communities are tough decisions. 

And while there are statutory reasons that we have to take some of these steps and there are long-term business reasons why it’s important to take these steps, the impact of many of these decisions today in local communities, it’s tough, and we recognize it. It’s certainly tougher for those communities than it is for us. It’s something that we live with.

Are more tough decisions on the way?

Well, around the country we deal with tough management decisions all the time. We also deal with protective resource issues like sea turtles, marine mammals, endangered species, habitat issues — it all converges and goes way beyond fishery management.

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