A Technological Psychosis: The Problem with “Overfishing” in the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Karen Gulbrandsen
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


A group of scientists publicly advocated to remove the word “overfishing” from the Magnuson Stevens Act, calling its use metaphorical. I draw on Burke’s terministic screens and technological psychosis to trace the implications embedded in the term and show how a terminological screen can become entrenched in dialectics that substantiate technology and innovation. This case raises questions about how to counter-balance a technological rationality that continues to dominate our perspective on many public issues.


Kenneth Burke began his essay “Terministic Screens” by making a distinction between a “scientistic” and a “dramatistic” approach to language: language as instrumental and language as suasive or motivated. In many ways, this distinction illustrates Burke’s ongoing meditations about the power of language to be used as a tool and the need to recognize the ways in which language motivates action.

In this essay, I examine “overfishing” as a terminology in a federal regulation. In 1976, Congress approved the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a law that established a 200-mile fishery conservation zone as well as regional fishery management councils to prevent “overfishing”—certain stocks of fish had been overfished to the point where their survival was threatened; other stocks had been substantially reduced. As the primary law that now governs marine fisheries management in United States federal waters, the Act has undergone many amendments, a name change, and three reauthorizations. Commonly known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act (shortened to MSA), the Act is once again up for reauthorization. During the reauthorization process, a group of scientists publicly advocated in research journals and other forums to remove the word “overfishing” from the ten National Standards that operationalize the act. Drawing on more than one hundred years of research done across the globe, they want to move the language away from “overfishing” as the organizing term for regulating how fish stocks are managed in the United States. In his article “On the Birth and Death of Ideas in Marine Science,” Brian J. Rothschild summarized the problem. He called its use “uncritical,” arguing it is “not a scientific metric,” and is therefore “a metaphor that refers to any relatively low stock abundance with regard to the cause of depletion” (1241). In 2015/16, the House of Representatives declined public appeals by scientists and others to replace the term “overfishing” with “depleted” in the MSA (Department of Commerce, NOAA, Final Rule).

In this case, “overfishing” moved from describing a problem to being the problem (and cause) of depleted fish stocks in our oceans. Although it creates a form that allows audiences to participate in a public issue, it also directs a perspective that misrepresents the totality of the problem. Furthermore, the term doesn’t correspond with how many in the scientific community think we should be talking about and regulating depleted fish stocks. In general, federal regulations manage human action and intent. But the language used in regulations also embeds choices related to who and what gets privileged in the discourse. In this case, the problem with “overfishing” isn’t so much that it is a metaphor, but that it has come to circumscribe a problematic orientation. This is not to say that scientists disagree that overfishing exists and needs to be addressed. Rather, the scope of the term is insufficient, narrowly circumscribing and amplifying a motivation that has become dissonant with localized knowledge from scientists and fishers about how to approach the problem. Although the form “overfishing” assigns human culpability, it is also entrenched within dialectics that substantiate innovation and an over-emphasis on the technological to solve problems.

In this essay, I draw on Burke’s concepts related to language and technology to analyze the implications of “overfishing” in the MSA, because, in many ways, this case underscores the tension Burke identified between a “scientistic” and a “dramatistic” approach to language. First, I describe the problem in greater detail. Then, I examine Burke’s concept called “technological psychosis” to consider the implications of privileging a scientistic view of language. In this case, the term became an overarching schema that set the conditions to conceptualize and enforce regulatory actions. As a corrective, however, the terminology institutionalized a calculation that cannot be measured. Statements are “true” if they fall within this terministic screen. But the term also came to define and measure the value of a natural resource within economic systems of credit. Placing so much value on the system has the potential to both displace the authority of both fishers and scientists and to distance public interest. This case has implications for the ways in which terminology orients agency when it comes to making change, and it demonstrates the need to activate places to negotiate and debate a technological attitude that continues to dominate our discourse.


Although marine fisheries must comply with a number of federal regulations, the MSA has “chief authority” for fisheries in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (Department of Commerce, NOAA, MSA). Since 1976, fisheries management has undergone many changes, mandating fisheries comply with different systems intended to limit and measure fishing activity. In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service began to solicit public comments on potential changes to the ten national standards that operationalize the Act. Before, during, and after this public commenting period, many marine scientists published articles in peer-reviewed journals and presented at conferences and seminars to explain why overfishing should be removed from National Standard 1, which states: “(1) Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery” (MSA Public Law 94–265, Sec. 201 (a)).

But as scientists have demonstrated, “overfishing” is not a scientific construct. In fact, scientists have shown that models to quantify the fluctuations in fish stocks don’t work. As Michael M. Sissenwine, Pamela M. Mace, and Hans J. Lassen explained, almost all of the frameworks used to prevent overfishing are based on a concept called Maximum Sustainable Yield (154) or the “highest yield that can be taken from a stock on a sustained basis” (167). This concept was first developed in the 1930s by E.S. Russell in a paper called “Some Theoretical Considerations on the ‘Overfishing’ Problem,” in which he put forward principles for assessing fish stocks that continue to underpin today’s frameworks. In his paper, however, Russell qualified his work, noting that the task was difficult because the “conditions to be taken into account are extremely complex and extremely variable, and the data available are as a rule incomplete and not always easy to interpret in an unequivocal way” (3). In the 1930s, the model was further developed and became instantiated in the curriculum of fisheries science.1 But Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) remains “a theoretical construct.”2 It is conditional on “fishing practices (such as size selection and the realized harvest strategy) and environmental and ecological factors”—it is “virtually never obtainable” (Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen 154). Although current frameworks for defining MSY and overfishing targets are well understood, they are based on measuring a single species in isolation of the ecosystem as a whole. Russell’s caution in 1931 still holds. A framework for “revising the reference points in response to changes in fishing practice or environmental and ecological factors is generally lacking” (Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen 154). This isn’t to say, however, that scientists don’t want to regulate fishing. Rather, they have shown that they cannot provide the theoretical model for measuring fish stocks as a regulatory mechanism.

In addition, many have shown that the models fail to describe the dynamics of fish populations (Rothschild, “The Overfishing Metaphor” 2). Ray Hilborn and Kevin Stokes pointed out that “many of the definitions of being overfished (or of overfishing) now in place cannot be justified on biological or legal grounds” (114). In their preface, Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen argued that “a significant proportion of the reported success in rebuilding overfished stocks in the United States was a result of reassessing the stocks (not actual improvement in their status)” (155). In their response to the Discussion Draft of National Standard 1, the Center for Sustainable Fisheries explained that there are different models for calculating and interpreting overfishing, creating what they called an “ambiguity.” Two investigators using the same data can arrive at two different conclusions about the level of overfishing (Center for Sustainable Fisheries). In seminars at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, scientists agreed that the science has moved beyond the theoretical model under which the MSA was written, and which governs current management and conservation measures. They argued for more collaborative models of research, integrating results from fishermen and from other disciplines to help them understand the reproductive mechanisms of fish stocks that account for the effects of climate change and pollution on the ecosystem.3 The question they want to address is how to integrate results from other disciplines in ethical ways (Cadrin).

In subsequent reauthorizations of the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, however, “overfishing” became institutionalized, signifying an overall system for measuring the value and success of regulations. Hilborn and Stokes explained: “In the United States, and increasingly elsewhere, stopping stocks from becoming overfished, and stopping overfishing, have become the holy grails of fisheries management” (119). Rothschild called it a “preoccupation” (“On the Birth and Death” 1), and Rothschild et al., a “de facto management goal” (7). Goethel et al. argued that “the incorrect implementation of overfishing and sustainable terminology has led to unnecessarily stringent management, overly pessimistic fisheries outlooks, and unwarranted hardship to fishing communities” (1). In addition, scientists have claimed that today’s systems for managing fish stocks are “arbitrarily defined” (Goethel et al.), “rigid” (Rothschild, “Overfishing Metaphor” 2), and “prescriptive” (Sissenwine et al. 155), referring to the one-size-fits-all-species solutions now in place. In many ways, the term itself not only emphasizes a technological orientation, but it has also become a technological psychosis, an overarching schema that sets the conditions under which the regulations as a whole are conceptualized and enforced. “Overfishing” sums up the terms of action. Statements about overfishing are “true” if those statements calculate or terminate within this reason for fluctuating fish stocks.

Technological Psychosis

Throughout his work, Burke theorized a number of concepts about how to counter-balance a technological rationality that continues to dominate our perspective on many public issues. In his essay on “The Human Barnyard,” Ian Hill argued that Burke’s concept of rhetoric is like a fulcrum that negotiates the humanistic and the technological. Hill says, “Rhetoric mediates natural, physiological human necessity by upholding or altering the demands of the counter-natural technological environment: people mold technology, technology molds the situation, and people utilize rhetoric to induce remolding technology to transform society” (9). In other words, rhetoric mediates that push and pull between valorizing technology for all that it can bring to our lives and then regulating the implications of that valorization. In his Afterward to Attitudes Toward History, Burke wrote that he saw Permanence and Change as “a confrontation of permanent technologic change” and introduced “technological psychosis” as a terminology for explaining and critiquing the habits (emphases, discriminations, attitudes, dispositions) that orient and give value to practice and purpose (377). He called it “the one psychosis which is, perhaps, in its basic patterns, contributing a new principle to the world. It is at the center of our glories and distresses” (Permanence and Change 44). Throughout his essays and books, Burke engaged questions about the extent to which all of nature is instrumented and the permanence of technological change. As Floyd D. Anderson and Lawrence J. Prelli noted, the urgency for Burke had to do with whether contemporary discourse discourages or even permits discussion of public issues, such as the impacts of technological change, from a range of perspectives (73).

In his essay “In Haste,” Burke explained the principles related to the permanence of technological change and a state he called Counter Nature. He said, “our ways of life and livelihood are notably different from the conditions that our primordial ancestors lived under, prior to the many inventions which have changed the environment radically enough for it to have become a kind of ‘second nature’” (340). In other words, the technological has become so ingrained into our habits and dispositions that we may not recognize its embeddedness. For Burke, this move to Counter Nature followed the third great rationalization of humans: science or “the attempt to control for our purposes the forces of technology, or machinery” (Permanence and Change 44). Here, science is defined via a technologized, mechanized way of explaining the world, marking a shift from religion to science as the schema for justifying patterns of thinking and doing. For example, in a religious schema, concepts such as heaven and hell shape patterns for what Burke called the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Under a what he called a “scientific rationalization,” it is the doctrine of use or the promise of what the tool can afford that shapes those patterns. In that shift, we have moved from faith, hope, and creed in the eternal to control and credit (use) in the present, in what things will do for us now, as the prime mover of judgment (Burke, “In Haste” 373). This rationalization formally established “the secular as the point of reference by which to consider questions of valuation,” with which we judge our actions (Burke, Permanence and Change 45). The questions then become, without religion, what is the mechanism for naming the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and shaping the actions we find praiseworthy and blameworthy? In his essay “Definition of Man,” Burke introduced the concept of Negative Motivation to note the irony that for all the positive that comes with new technology, technology has also introduced a “vast new era of negativity.” He continued, “For they are deadly indeed, unless we make haste to develop the controls (the negative the thou-shalt-not’s) that become necessary if these great powers are to be kept from getting out of hand” (LASA 13). The danger for Burke is the glorified version of mechanized, technologized, a-contextual conception of use— “innovation upon innovation” without regard to consequence, a technological psychosis that celebrates the instrumental and elides human need or consequence as the place of judgment.

In many ways, “overfishing” became the instrument to manage the problem, constituting a system for how different approaches to the managing fish stocks are valued. In many respects, it underscores Burke’s questions about the extent to which all language is instrumental. In her keynote address to the KB Society, Jodie Nicotra referenced Burke’s question as to whether “we simply use words, or do they not also use us?” (6) to argue Burke saw language as more than instrumental and conceived it “less as an instrument than as a force that subsumes us” (2). As Burke argued:

We discern situational patterns by means of the particular vocabulary of the cultural group into which we are born. Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful. Other groups may select other relationships as meaningful. These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality—hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is. (Permanence and Change 35).

In other words, terms, such as overfishing, embody relationships and situational patterns for what constitutes positive and negative motivations. We interpret and express the praiseworthy and the blameworthy through the use of symbols. But, not only that, the force that Nicotra references may have to do with Burke’s observation in his afterward to Permanence and Change that what makes us human (as opposed to animals) is not only that we use symbols, but that we can also both profit by and institutionalize their use. He says, “other organisms cannot profit by the kinds of attention and communication that made it possible for our tribe to institutionalize such instrumentalities” (Permanence and Change 309).

In this essay, I argue that part of that institutionalization has to do with a dialectic between faith and credit—faith in the technological system and an adherence to the credit it brings. So not only do we have the push/pull of technology, or the need to both manage and to innovate, but also faith that we can innovate our way out of problems and continue to profit. When such institutionalization becomes a trained incapacity to not recognize the perspectives or motives that substantiate an instrumentality, human agency is certainly tempered. Hence, a technological psychosis is an institutionalized attitude or pattern of thought, symbolized in language, and interpreted through frameworks that place value on some actions and relationships and not others. In this way, technology is both structuring and motivated. Under a technological rationalization, the danger to over-value the instrumental closes off and devalues alternate ways for doing. By privileging the instrumental, we also de-privilege agents and deflect the motivating force of technology. 

As Anderson and Prelli explained, Burke’s methods allow us to expose how “‘legitimate’ perspectives are reduced ultimately to the terms of a single technological system of thought and discourse” and to “reopen that closed system through construction of an alternative vocabulary to those privileged in a technological society” (73). Analysis shows terms in relation to one another. Concepts such as technological psychosis help us to recognize that all perspectives are partial and partisan, and, as James P. Zappen argued, give us ways to re-examine and unsettle “unreflective patterns and properties” (213) showing how terms are substantiated in relation to other terms: “to know a thing is to know its substance (or sub-stance), to know what lies beneath it — hence the dialectical relationship” (214). Our instrumentalities, our use of symbols, have a sub-stance, a position. As positioned, the dialectic that substantiates patterns of thought and systems of use can be observed and unsettled.

As a case for understanding language as a system of use, the MSA is interesting because scientists have questioned the discourse that has dominated regulatory action, calling for alternative language and perspectives to open up discussion and methods for conserving and protecting fisheries. Although this law has generated hundreds (if not thousands) pages of documents related to its enforcement and use (e.g., white papers, news reports, seminars, open forums, public comments, letters to the editor, opinion pages, and research by academics, governmental agencies, and nonprofits), I focus on a group of marine scientists’ problems with the language in National Standard 1. As Rothschild explained, the use of the word “overfishing” in National Standard 1 has had the “triple effect of eliminating major short-falls in current implementation, such as, ignoring economic and social impacts, focusing on the impractical and scientifically specious term ‘overfishing,’ and restricting the Councils to formulate regulations that limit their flexibility in dealing with on-the-ground fisheries management decisions” (“Rewriting” 1). Here, Rothschild recognized the power of a term to not only shape and place value on systems of use but also to become subsuming. The text for National Standard 1 is short. But it was the focal point for this group of scientists. And it demonstrates how a term has taken on a technological rationality that shifts power to the technological system and away from human agency in relation to permanent technological change. 

Overfishing as a Technologized Construct

Predominant in National Standard 1 is the act, “overfishing,” that is/is not to take place, and the corresponding acts to conserve, manage, and protect. The practice exists, and consistent with the purpose of a regulatory law, it needs to be managed. That realism is then followed by a pragmatic solution. National Standard 2 states “(2) Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available” (Public Law 94–265, Sec. 201 (a)). These two standards work to together as problem-solution, a dialectical symmetry that suggests that we can control or regulate for our own purposes the forces of nature. In this way, scientific information takes on a technological orientation that presupposes that the instrumental can solve the problem. This underlying dialectic of “overfishing” privileges the instrumental as the regulatory mechanism.

In this case, however, the solution is not the only technologized construct. Historically, the problem has also been rationalized within technological terminologies and the instrumental use of fish. As early as the 1850s, the term was used to make arguments to mitigate the impact of technology on fisheries. In her history of marine science, Helen Rozwadowski (2002) traced the term “overfishing” to an 1854 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, recounting John Cleghorn’s exhortations about dramatic fluctuations in herring stocks: “May we not have drawn over liberally on our shoals of herring? With such appliances may we not have overfished the sea?” (241). In his address, Cleghorn called on the Association to “lend important assistance towards the saving of our fish” and to preserve a “perennial source of wealth to the nation” (242). Following his remarks, a series of Royal Commissions were established to study “various manifestations of the purported problem” (Rozwadowski 27). This early attempt to mitigate the impact of technology on a natural resource was done by linking fish to their economic value—a perspective that places fish not only in its “natural” environment, but also in a technological one, one that provides wealth to a nation.

Likewise, in the United States, “overfishing” was used to organize arguments related to economic interests. This time, those arguments related to fishing by foreign fleets in coastal waters. Prior to the MSA, waters beyond 12 nautical miles were international waters and fished by fleets from other countries, including Soviet trawlers. Even though overfishing was recognized as a problem worldwide, international agreements were slow to come. With the MSA, Congress claimed authority and expanded U.S. jurisdiction from 12 to 200 offshore. Citing the economic benefits of commercial and recreational fishing to the United States, the Act attributed the depletion of certain stocks to “the activities of massive foreign fishing fleets in waters adjacent to such coastal areas” (sec. 2 (3)), which interfered with domestic fishing, damaging fishing gear and ignoring international agreements (sec. 2 (4)) (Fisheries Conservation and Management Act). In its introduction, the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act characterized the scene largely in economic terms, noting how fishery resources in the United State “constitute valuable and renewable natural resources.” The Act is further rationalized in terms of their economic value:

Commercial and recreational fishing constitutes a major source of employment and contributes significantly to the economy of the Nation. Many coastal areas are dependent upon fishing and related activities, and their economies have been badly damaged by the overfishing of fishery resources at an ever-increasing rate over the past decade. The activities of foreign fishing fleets in waters adjacent to such coastal areas have contributed to such damage, interfered with domestic fishing efforts and caused destruction of the fishing gear of United States fishermen. (MSA, 1976, 1996, 2007, 2(a)(3)).

With this Act, the United States institutionalized a system (or a set of motives) for taking authority, establishing eight new regional Fishery Management Councils to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service (which is part of NOAA) to manage the new territory. And this system or set of motives places fish within systems of credit. Within the language of this Act, we understand the value of fish in relation to future opportunities for United States fishermen—what the fish do for us as a resource. They are instrumental. The problem is defined through their instrumental use. If they had no use, there would be no problem or need to regulate.

To summarize, terminologically, “overfishing” implies a solution. In its simplicity, the term characterizes a story/plot in which people with no expertise or knowledge of the situation can participate. The term amplifies or highlights the acts and agents that are praised and blamed, implicating fishers as bad, and creating an antithesis between those who overdo it as opposed to those who under-do it. And, far from being metaphorical in the sense of ‘mere’ rhetoric, terms such as this one have power because they imply a judgment about the actor and their actions, a judgment in which people can readily participate. But, by placing a natural resource within systems of credit, the term takes on a strategic quality. It becomes a way to explain and justify how we see the situation. Terminologically, it orients and institutionalizes a viewpoint within which all solutions must calculate. In addition, this way of seeing things, or the attitude taken toward the situation, is creative in its own right. As Burke said, “for an affliction is a different affliction if it is thought of as a punishment by a Higher Power, a case of tough luck the doings of a personal enemy, or the curse of a social system that could be remedied, etc.” (Attitudes 415).

In this case, the affliction rests on a perspective of a certain inevitability of technology and the assumption that more technology can solve the problem. In other words, scientific data can quantify the optimal yield for fisheries. But that is not the case. The data used to make recommendations is uncertain, and at times, inadequate. In their report, the National Research Council outlined those areas of uncertainty, including: bias and variability of data; differing assumptions in the models used to characterize nature; inconsistent enforcement and management actions; and the unpredictability of nature (30–31). Contributing to the uncertainty is the effects of climate change—sea level rise, warming temperatures, acidification, and changes to patterns in currents. In ideal cases, the SSC examines both fisheries-dependent and fisheries-independent data from stock assessment models that determine the size and composition of fish stocks. Fisheries-dependent data come from fishers, including catch and landing reports from commercial fishers. Independent data come from on-board government monitors, and in some cases, cameras. But assessments are expensive. In 2016, NOAA shifted the burden of paying for monitors to the boat owners, making it costly for small, private fleets to go fishing.4 To complicate matters further, many don’t trust the assessments because the data used to make decisions are often out-of-date or even falsified.5

Furthermore, the process itself is far from being without interest. Council members are political appointees. They are often chosen by governors to represent the various constituencies that have a stake in the systems used to regulate fishing, including commercial and recreational fishers as well as environmental, academic, and governmental organizations (Crosson 262). On the one hand, the Council represents a broad array of interests from the fishermen themselves to environmental groups invested in sustaining resources. On the other hand, many on the Council lack expertise in fisheries management science. To account for this governing body’s lack of scientific expertise, Congress established a Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) in 2007 to interpret the research presented to the Councils by conducting or evaluating peer reviews (600.315 p. 53) that are relevant, inclusive, objective, timely, transparent and validated. During the public commenting period to amend the guidelines related to “best scientific information available,” however, many questioned the scientific review process (https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=NOAA-NMFS-2008–0299–0054), reflecting Rothschild’s assertion that “despite this seemingly clear mandate, there is much controversy over what the ‘best available science’ is and who should decide what assessments should be used” (“Rewriting” 12). He goes on to say “not only is the frequency of survey data collection disputed, but whether the assessment methods used are the best available. . . . The Agency rarely if ever considers presenting or recommending data from other sources” (12–13). In other words, the system has empowered some, while disempowering others. In this way, the term not only displaces the authority of fishers, but also of scientists, placing increased value on the technological system or the external conditions that must be met.

Such use of the term emphasizes the mandate, reducing human agency to explanations that “fit” the mandate. Other issues, such as pollution and climate change, remain off-stage, factors that have a significant impact on migratory patterns, diseases and the spread of disease, and reproductive mechanisms. Other factors including the gear used in commercial fishing, the size of boats, and even alternate systems for approaching the problem receive little attention. In fact, the reauthorizations of the act in 1996 and 2006 further substantiated the term’s in-built directionality by establishing a 10-year deadline to rebuild all depleted stocks. However, those deadlines were the result of political pressure, and they mandated certainty in situations that are inherently uncertain.6 In the MSA, all management plans and actions have to calculate within this mandate. Although scientists recognized that the frameworks that characterized management plans prior to 1996 were abused, they also questioned the ability of science to meet the certainties posited by the MSA. Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen questioned whether the frameworks for managing fisheries “sometimes, or perhaps often, have outstripped the ability of science to deliver,” asking “to what degree do today’s fishery management frameworks reflect scientific theory and knowledge (which is of course subject to data limitations), or conversely, to what degree are policy and laws pressuring scientists to overreach the science?” (155). Others have argued that scientists should only assess the data and not be asked to make the policy decisions. 7

Within these arguments, we see the creative power of a technological attitude to distance human agency. In her work, Carolyn R. Miller discussed this kind of problem in relation to open and closed systems logic. “Purposes become external to human motivations and attach to the tools created by those motivations” (231). The technical, objectivity-driven system expands while other explanatory systems contract. “This is the beginning of our belief in ‘objectivity,’ the belief that external reality is the only determining check on our knowledge of it. Objectivity serves both our need to control more and more of the world and our willingness to let machines embezzle purposes from us” (231). In the MSA, although the intent may be for science and public policy to stand together, to work as one to address depleted fish stocks, the dissonance in how “overfishing” functions as a technological narrative has the potential (and in some cases, already has) to push them apart, placing them in opposition. In this way, two endeavors that are meant to be appositional (working together) become oppositional (working against). 

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke described this move from apposition to opposition as when “the synecdochic relationship whereby a part can be taken as consistent with the whole . . . is no longer felt to apply; and instead we encounter the divisive relationship, the genitive transformation of something which is ‘a part of’ a larger context into something which is ‘apart from’ this context” (107). When science is written into public policy, it is meant to be “a part of” a larger context for addressing a problem, not “apart from.” How we account for human agency within scientific inquiry has consequence. The problem with the technological attitude is a psychosis that has the potential to move human agency from a place of apposition to one of opposition. Here we see the power of language to frame who and what is valued, directing attention and resources to agents, agencies, and purposes that may or may not address the problem at hand or the needs of the community. For scientists, much is at stake when it comes to how their acts and agency (i.e., which research agendas get funding; whose science “counts”) are posited when “overfishing” sets the conditions for success. If we dismiss the agency of scientists, is it also easier to dismiss the science?

For communities, too, their agency for affecting change may be seen as standing in opposition to rather than as a part of solutions. Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther characterized the fishing fleets and public forums as increasingly dominated by capitalized interests—with consolidation of quota, large quota holders have more influence; small quota holders rely on the large quota holders to lease them enough quota to stay in business (119). Hence, a system that works to maintain the power of the well-connected corporate interests. In his research, Thomas A. Okey found the Councils have only “token representation” of broader public interests with special and self-interests dominating this decision-making body (194). Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther extended that finding by describing how in New England, commercial fishing interests are often disconnected from the traditional community of fishermen and onshore businesses related to fishing. In their research, they found that by 2012, three corporations controlled nearly 40 percent of quota for a single groundfish species (115–116). Both Okey and Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther articulated a common sentiment that systems used to prevent overfishing have disenfranchised most of the public, privatized a public resource, and diverted attention away from other ways to manage the resource. Okey linked that disenfranchisement to the political and economic process, which “contains strong incentives and feedbacks for maintaining the power of the well-connected corporate interests and very weak incentives for designing a logically grounded and well-designed system of trusteeship” (201) that includes representing a public good.

As shown, the system fails to account for public interests. Capitalized interests dominate even though other solutions may have better results, putting small quota holders and localized communities in an oppositional role if they attempt to make change. That opposition is also evident between some fishers and government scientists. In their work, Heather Goldstone et al. noted the distrust some fishers have of NOAA and the methods government researchers used to decide where and how much to fish (9). As a result, when different solutions and methods for solving overfishing are posited, those voices may then be heard as opposed to rather than as part of the decision-making process even though a cooperative approach produces better outcomes. And, many scientists, working at universities and research centers, value the local fishing community’s perspective. Scientists have long recognized that incorporating multiple types of knowledge, including the localized knowledge of fishers, is invaluable to their work. 8 Such dissonance in motivations has resulted in discounting localized knowledge and solutions as antithetical to the regulatory act when it is not.

Rhetoric and Technological Psychosis

In his writing, Rothschild argued against the use of “overfishing” because it was too abstract of a concept. But the problem really lies in the movement between the abstract and literal. In other words, in its institutionalization, “overfishing” both manages and creates the conditions for the kinds of accountancy that matter. It was a corrective to innovation upon innovation and the technological devices that made it possible to overfish. And, “overfishing” provides a useful form for getting people to care about the problems in our oceans: overfishing is bad; underfishing is good. In the abstract, the term creates a form or place for audiences to consent and cooperate. However, as interpreted through current regulations (the MSA) that generalized, abstract concept is literal. And when the concretized, literal form is privileged without recognizing it as characterized and motivated by agents, we also cede agency and hence power to the form.

In this case, this privileging of the form enacts a situation that over-values the mechanism. And for both the scientists and fishermen, the agency afforded to the mechanism creates a problem. This kind of technological psychosis and the technologizing of a natural resource has consequence. First, fish have value in relation to their usefulness. People have value in relation to maintaining that usefulness, especially in relation to economic concerns. Second, the humanistic and the subjective are disempowered, leading to a troubling definition of “use” and “useful.” Such a-contextual conceptions of use elide human agency and knowledge, relying on the instrumental as the place of judgment. In many ways, this case demonstrates how human knowledge may be ceded to the regulatory mechanism via terminology that not only shapes but also subsumes an orientation. This is not to suggest humans lack agency. Rather it shows the ways in which local knowledges and the human are discounted and/or disconnected from systems of use.

Third, does changing the term change the situation? Although their initial appeal to Congress to remove “overfishing” from the MSA was rejected, in 2017, Representative Young introduced HR 200, an act to amend and reauthorize the MSA. A key amendment is to replace “overfishing” with “depleted.” HR 200 passed the House and has been received by the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. As of December 2020, no further action has been taken (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/200). But questions about the impact of changing the term remain. Although “overfishing” limits the scope of the acts responsible for depleted fish stocks in problematic ways, its form contains human culpability. As a form, “depleted” removes that human aspect, but the problem with our oceans largely has to do with decisions and actions made by humans. In many ways, this change in term does not necessitate a change in terministic screen. The discourse for how we address vast and permanent environmental change has become institutionalized within a set of dialects that promotes innovation upon innovation. In this case, “science” took on meaning within a technological attitude and when it became a technology for managing a problem. It seems that “depleted” further de-personalizes the situation. A change in term doesn’t altogether change the affliction. A kairos of progress continues to set the grounds for solving the problem within our faith in the technological. In this way, a technological psychosis is about succumbing to the same terministic screen. 

But it also has to do with conflating human purposes with technological progress. This dialectic between permanence and change, the managerial and the generative, seem to also provide places for negotiating and debating a technological ethic that continues to want to distance human purposes. As Hill argued, Burke saw technology as a form of symbolic action. Its creative force “motivates human behavior by determining, in part, the scene in which humans act” (9). But Hill was also quick to point out that Burke maintained that “people can use rhetoric to induce remolding technology to transform society” (9). In his work, Kyle Jensen outlined how Burke’s War of Words and A Rhetoric of Motive together provide the basic coordinate points for rhetorical counteraction. In these works, Burke gives us the coordinates to recognize how we are led to identify with the devices through which human relations are expressed, and in that recognition, to choose whether or not we will be persuaded. The irony, however, is that “rhetorical motive manifests in response to the problem of division” (Jensen 390). To have a motive is to align one’s interests and expectations as part of a set of relationships. As such, motives articulate a stance one takes and are substantiated via divisiveness, to an enemy. In this case, a natural resource is consubstantial with its commodification; Human knowledge with maintaining the commodity. Burke’s approach to counteraction means learning how to be conscious of the rhetorical devices that make us complicit in the forms that perpetuate how we understand technological change and progress. In this way, we might resist being subsumed by the enemy. This case illustrates the continued need to be conscious of the scientific-dramatistic approach to language and the ways in which the one substantiates the other so that we know how we are made complicit in narratives that we might otherwise resist.


I want to thank the anonymous reviewers. Your generous and insightful comments helped me to make this essay stronger.


1. See for example Johan Hjorth, G. Jahn and P. Ottestad, The Optimum Catch. Essays on Population, Hvalr. Skr, 7, 1933, pp. 92–127; Michael Graham, “Modern Theory of Exploiting a Fishery, and Application to North Sea Trawling,” ICES Journal of Marine Science, vol. 10 1935, pp. 264–274; Beverton, Raymond JH, and Sidney J. Holt. On the dynamics of exploited fish populations. Vol. 11. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

2. As argued by Sissenwine, Mace, and Lassen, “Preventing Overfishing: Evolving Approaches,” 154. See also R. D. Methot Jr, G. R. Tromble, D. M. Lambert, and K. E. Greene, “Implementing a Science-Based System for Preventing Overfishing and Guiding Sustainable Fisheries in the United States,” ICES Journal of Marine Science, vol. 71, 2014, p. 185.

3. For examples, see Brian J. Rothschild, “On the Evolution of Fish-Population Dynamics,” University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, School of Marine Science and Technology, January 27, 2016. Lecture. https://echosystem.umassd.edu:8443/ess/echo/presentation/e416094b-a172–4bd9–850e-10a18cd5f7f8?ec=true, and Steven Cadrin, “Identifying Spatial Population Structure for More Effective Fishery Management,” University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, October 21, 2016. Seminar.

4. See Jennifer F. Brewer, Kyle Molton, Robin Alden, and Carla Guenther, “Accountability, Transformative Learning, and Alternate Futures for New England Groundfish Catch Shares,” Marine Policy, vol. 80, 2017, pp. 113–122.

5. See Scott Crosson, “The Impact of Empowering Scientific Advisory Committees to Constrain Catch Limits in US Fisheries,” Science and Public Policy, vol. 40, 2013, pp. 261–273.

6. For a discussion about political pressures, see Brewer, Molton, Alden, and Guenther, “Accountability, Transformative Learning” and about mandating certainty, see National Research Council, “Evaluating the Effectiveness,” vol. 31.

7. For example, Hilborn and Stokes, “Defining Overfished Stocks.”

8. For examples, see Oran R. Young, “Taking Stock: Management Pitfalls in Fisheries; Blind Faith in the Validity of Scientific Assessments Can Result in Poor Policy,” Environment, vol. 45, no. 3, 2003, p. 23; Cadrin, “Identifying Spatial Population Structure”; and Rothschild, “On the Evolution.”

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