Last night I attended a public comment hearing on some proposed fishing management regulations, and I could hear the tension that exists between our economy, reliant on steady growth, and our diminishing resources. The proposals, presented by RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) administrators, were framed by scientific assessments of the health of fisheries. The fish were referred to mainly as biomass and resources. The hearing was attended by 50 people, mainly fishermen and women, but also citizens concerned about sustainable fisheries.
Critics of DEM regulation presented arguments about the rising cost of fuel, and the need to maintain a high harvest in order to make a profit; many of them did not agree with the DEM about their fishery assessments. Ultimately, the administrators and the fishermen seemed to be speaking two languages, much like our national political discourse. When the DEM administrator chairing the hearing referred to ‘management,’ fisherman recoiled as if the word meant ‘closure.’ The DEM assessed fishery populations scientifically, whereas the fishermen offered anecdotal evidence about days when the fish come and days when they don’t. One shellfisherman asked a DEM scientist to explain where the evidence of soft-shell clam underpopulation was.
The hearing was an exercise in democracy, one that both sides seemed familiar with. The DEM administrator chairing the hearing knew many of the fishermen by name, including several leaders of trade associations. Those trade associations take different positions on DEM regulation, but the word ‘micromanagement’ came up many times. Several members of an Advisory Panel, which worked prior to the hearing to offer recommendations to the DEM on the proposals, spoke of the long hours spent trying to identify the best path forward. Several veterans, involved with RI fisheries and regulation going back to the 1970s, spoke of the ‘give-and-take’ that happens with these regulations over time. The process itself offered by the hearing gave me some hope about the ability of our system of government to work ‘for the people and by the people.’ Ultimately, that is the only way we can move forward, especially with the great challenges we will face in coming years.