Nowhere has the breakdown of US fishery management been more apparent than in the work of the National Marine Fisheries Service -- the agency that oversees it.
The service is supposed to be a dispassionate voice on fishing issues, acting as a check on the 18-member New England Fishery Management Council, which is tilted heavily to fishing industry members and their allies. But in reality, the service seldom forcefully challenges votes by the New England council -- or the seven other regional fishing councils around the country -- even when the local decisions appear to violate federal law.
The reason is simple: Political leaders have routinely sided with the fishermen.
"In New England fishing, it's all about end runs" for the special interests, says a high-ranking National Marine Fisheries Service employee who asked not to be identified. "If you don't get what you want locally, you go up a notch. You go to the [national head] of the service, then you go to the head of the Department of Commerce, then you go political and threaten the budget allocations. It's endemic."
A case in point is the way the service went about trying to protect the summer flounder population, from Maine to Georgia. In 1998 the service approved a proposal by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to preserve the coveted flat fish -- a proposal that even the service's own scientists said had only an 18 percent chance of working. Two years later, an incredulous federal appeals court struck down the service's work as inadequate.
"Only in Superman Comics' Bizarro world, where reality is turned upside down," the three-judge panel wrote, " could the service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed" complies with fisheries law.
The signs of political pressure to go easy on the flounder fishermen were not obvious. But an analysis of the decision by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the flawed proposal was likely adopted "because of pressure from the councils and the states and because a valuable fishery was involved."
Some former service officials rise to the agency's defense, saying they have pressed for tighter rules, but they know what would happen if they press too hard: Fishermen and their political allies would fight them, and nothing would get done.
"The political pressure is too great to override," says Andrew Rosenberg, the former Northeast administrator of the fishery service. "Your choice realistically is to accept the plan or have nothing in place."
US Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Maine Senator Olympia Snowe are among those who have often gone to bat for the fishermen. But they say they intervene only out of fear that hardworking fishermen will lose their livelihoods to fish counts that are sometimes wrong, and to a fisheries law that is sometimes interpreted too harshly.
Frank and Snowe often ask officials to delay rules, reexamine the science behind them, or adopt less stringent restrictions.
"We are pushing for more accurate fish counts," says Frank, adding that he wants the government to focus harder on the loss of jobs that the new regulations could cause.
Now, as the New England council again considers tough new rules, Snowe and Frank are again asking for more economic and scientific analysis of them. Frank, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Representative John F. Tierney have written US Commerce Secretary Donald Evans to urge that any new rules be sensitive to the fishermen's needs. Snowe convened a hearing last week to examine whether the fishery service is misinterpreting the nation's fishery law.
The law in question, the Sustainable Fisheries Act, drew the support of both Frank and Snowe when it passed in 1996. But some environmentalists and federal fishery officials complain that, since that vote, the two, along with other regional political leaders, have worked to undercut the law's effectiveness.
"I know exactly what happens," says Leon Panetta, a former US representative and head of the Pew Oceans Commission, an advocacy group that mapped out a plan for ocean management. "For the broader constituency, they portray themselves as being for sustainable fisheries. But if their individual fishing community comes to them, they are going to do everything they can to protect them."
Snowe says she hasn't worked to undercut the law, but rather to see that it is enforced in the balanced way Congress intended, rebuilding fish stocks "without destroying the livelihods of fishermen."
William Hogarth, the current director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, pledges that he won't let political pressures affect his decision-making.
And in truth, he may not have a choice. Federal Judge Gladys Kessler has made it very clear that if fishery service officials fail to impose tougher limits on fishermen, she will do it for them.