Stormy Waters: Earthjustice’s Roger Fleming

Our planet is a blue planet and yet the oceans receive relatively little attention from an environmental perspective.

This page was published 12 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Jessica Knoblauch: What first interested you in oceans issues?

Roger Fleming: The ocean was always something that interested me. It was mysterious. It was far away. I’m from the Midwest, so I never even saw the ocean until I was a senior in high school. But I always read about it and I always dreamed of working on ocean-related issues, so I focused on environmental law in law school and took all of the ocean-related law classes that I could. Our planet is a blue planet and yet the oceans receive relatively little attention from an environmental perspective. It’s been a lifelong interest of mine, but it’s also an area where I think there’s a significant need for attorneys to work on the issues and a significant need for conservation.
JK: Are there ocean-management issues unique to the east coast?
RF: The east coast presents some unique circumstances in that it contains our nation’s oldest fishery. The European settlers came to New England and arguably settled here because of the fisheries’ resources available around the Gulf of Maine. Given that we have had organized commercial fisheries here for literally hundreds of years it brings with it a lot of unique challenges. There’s just that history and that culture engrained in the fabric of New England. There’s even a wooden sculpture of a codfish that hangs over the statehouse in Massachusetts. But that history can make change very difficult. New England is often referred to as the poster child for bad fisheries management, and I think that in part is because the history.

A good example of mismanagement can be found in the most famous fishery in New England, our groundfish fishery, which collapsed in the mid-1990s. As a result of the collapse, limits were established, but sort of counter-intuitively fishermen weren’t actually required to stop fishing when they hit the biologically recommended targets. And that’s just the way it has always been done in New England. Now we finally have enforceable catch limits in place for the first time, but it’s been a relatively long fight to regain control of the fishery and start to rebuild it. I’m not sure if we’ve turned the corner yet, but we’re getting there.
JK: Is the hope that New England will serve as a starting point for affecting fisheries policies across the rest of the nation?
RF: Yeah, I think that that’s a big part of it. One might say if you can fix the problem in New England then everything else should seem like a piece of cake. And that’s not to diminish the challenges elsewhere around the country, but it’s just been such a difficult row to hoe here in New England. I think that if we can make changes that will work in New England, it helps lead the nation in terms of the direction for fisheries policy.
JK: Earthjustice often focuses on saving iconic species like whales and salmon, but we’re also working to protect forage fish species like herring, a less iconic fish. Do you find this challenging?  
RF: Among fishermen, especially fishermen like our clients who recognize the importance of restoring fish stocks and taking a longer term view, I think there’s a much greater understanding of the need to protect these less charismatic species that are just so critical to ocean health. In terms of the public, I think that overall awareness is increasing, but it’s difficult because a lot of folks think of the ocean as a nice place to go visit, but they don’t think about what’s going on underneath the ocean. If you give people a chance to think about it, they get it. But it’s difficult to get that message out there. It’s hard to do public education around a small stinky oily fish.
JK: Is it economically feasible to sustainably fish in New England?
RF: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the most exciting aspects of this job is that we have some of the greatest clients that you could ask for whose parents or grandparents were part of the problem, frankly, and our clients recognize this now. Back then, it just seemed like a limitless resource, but a lot of our clients now recognize that they were fishing too hard or they were fishing in the wrong areas.
Are they catching fish at the same levels that they were 50 years ago? No, not yet. But I think that there is definitely a place where there will be sustainability that’s both environmental and economic that will support fishermen and fishing communities along the coast.
JK: What successes have we seen in New England fisheries so far?  
RF: For the first time in 2011, the legendary New England groundfish fishery had catch limits put in place that required fisheries to stop fishing when they hit the biologically recommended limits. And this was in part implemented through a new approach to management that was pioneered by one of our fishing organization clients in what is called sector management.
It’s fairly innovative stuff. We tried it for the first time and so far it looks like it’s been an overwhelming success. Fishermen kept fishing throughout the year, so from a business perspective they were able to keep their businesses going. And from a conservation perspective, nobody exceeded any limits. It seems like a good news story finally in New England.
In fact, we actually intervened for the first time in a fisheries suit in New England on the side of government to help defend this new approach to management. That’s surely a sign of how things have changed if after all these years of having to sue the government for not doing what’s right that now we’re actually defending the system that’s in place.
JK: Earthjustice is also ramping up efforts to protect forage fish species like herring. Why?
RF: Everything in New England in the ocean eats herring.  Herring is regarded as a keystone species in the Gulf of Maine and really the whole Northwest Atlantic because they transfer energy from lower levels to higher levels of the food chain. They’re just critical links in everything that goes on in the ocean.
Our work on herring is part of a broader forage campaign that includes sea herring, river herring, mackerel and now menhaden. All of these forage species are either in trouble or showing signs of severe stress, so I think the fact that we’ve entered this arena within the past two to three years is well-timed. We’ve been trying to establish improved monitoring systems because even though some of these fisheries are arguably fishing within limits, the fact is that the monitoring, oversight and accountability in these fisheries has been virtually nil.
In addition, the limits set were not adequately accounting for their role in the ecosystem. Most scientists agree that a higher percentage of a forage species’ population has to be protected because so many other things eat those forage species. So we need to move toward ecosystem-based catch limits. Traditionally we’ve managed species on a species by species basis. But it doesn’t work that well in the ocean environment where species co-mingle and are dependent upon key stocks of forage species for survival. But there is some slow movement amongst regulators to start to piece these plans together so that we can have ecosystem-based fisheries management from the get-go. That’s the direction that I think we’re headed in and a lot of us feel like we need to head there if we’re going to keep our momentum going.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.