Sunday, July 14, 2019
In May 2014, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) introduced H.R. 4742, a bill that he called the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Improving Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”
Rep. Hastings, like too many sagebrush-country congressmen, did not support conservation, and probably never saw a dam, clear-cut or strip mine that he didn’t like, so it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that H.R. 4742, if it had passed, would have done for America’s fisheries what clear-cuts have already done to a lot of the once-vital forests that stood near the Washington coast (although, despite such record—or maybe because of it--the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which was then called the “Center for Coastal Conservation, named Hastings its “Conservationist of the Year” in 2010).
H.R, 4742 proposed a complete restructuring of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States, in an effort to weaken the conservation and management measures that have made Magnuson-Stevens such an effective fisheries management tool.
That, in itself, was nothing unusual. Ever since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 required federal managers to end overfishing, promptly rebuild overfished stocks and use the best available science to manage fisheries, some members of the recreational and commercial fishing communities, who were more concerned with keeping landings high in the short term, and the economic benefits associated with such landings, rather than in the long-term health of fish stocks, have been trying to chip away at the foundations of fisheries law.
Those efforts only grew in intensity after the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, when Congress strengthened the law’s conservation provisions by requiring that annual catch limits be established for virtually all managed fish populations, and also required that fishermen be held accountable should they overfish a fish stock.
Prior to H.R. 4742, the efforts to weaken the law were usually limited to extending the deadlines for rebuilding overfished stocks, and perhaps made a few other changes.
Rep. Hastings’ bill upped the ante.
H.R. 4742 not only extended and created loopholes in the mandatory rebuilding timeline, but also undermined the annual catch limit requirement, authorized persons with no scientific training to participate in Scientific and Statistical Committee deliberations, required the creation of “fishery impact statements” to address any proposed regulation, limited future catch share programs, weakened federal fishery managers’ authority over Gulf of Mexico red snapper, included other red snapper-specific programs, and allowed fishery managers to circumvent various other conservation laws, including the Endangered Species Act.
Not surprisingly, a bill that proposed such radical changes to a successful federal fisheries law became the target of conflicting comments.
The Recreational Fishing Alliance, a group which has longrepresented fishing industry and boatbuilding interests, along with the extremewing of anglers opposed to currently mandated conservation measures, praisedRep. Hastings’ legislation, saying
“RFA has argued against the rigid and inflexible nature of fixed rebuilding deadlines since the last reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens…
“HR 4742 would also make modifications to allow the regional fishery management councils to set ‘annual catch limits’ in consideration of changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of fishing communities. It would also permit councils to set multiyear annual catch limits to afford some stability in recreational specifications…”
More mainstream recreational fishing groups were somewhat ambivalent about the proposed law. Mike Nussman, then President of the American Sportfishing Association, a fishing tackle trade group, said that
“We would have liked to have seen more done in this bill to address the needs of the recreational fishing community. This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits and improving stock assessments for data-poor fisheries, but unfortunately our top priorities are not meaningfully addressed.”
Other members of the angling community, who were more aware of the benefits conferred on fishermen by healthy stocks and conservation-oriented management, were completely opposed to the bill. During the House markup process, Capt. Jamie Geiger, a Florida charter boat operator, testified before the relevant committee, saying, in part, that
“Now is not the time, just 7 years into recovering our fisheries, to make changes in a wisely crafted, successful bipartisan bill, negating the efforts of fishers and hard work done by fishery management councils and NOAA Fisheries to date, especially with the effect of returning fisheries management to a period when our fisheries and fishers suffered under a system of political influence and short-term economic decisionmaking.
“I strongly urge Congress exercise its courage and political will and leave in place the proven and amply flexible requirements in the 2006 reauthorization, and allow the long-term economic benefits to the resource and fishermen accrue with recovered long-term sustainable fisheries…”
However, the most compelling testimony came not from the recreational nor the commercial industry, nor from anyone else with a vested economic interest in the fishery management process. Instead, it came from Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of Stony Brook University in New York, a very respected fishery scientist who has had years of experience inside the federal fishery management system. Dr. Pikitch said
“During my 30-plus-year career beginning on Oregon, conducting research of commercial fishing vessels, I have been deeply involved in fishery science and management. While serving on the scientific and statistical committees of the Pacific and New England Councils during the 1980s and 1990s, I witnessed firsthand how flexibility was used to avoid addressing difficult problems.
“Scientific advice was often ignored. Political pressure was applied to delay action desperately needed to prevent overfishing and rebuild fish stocks. Over-fishing continued, even on extremely depleted stocks. Coastal communities faced economic hardships, due to collapsing fish populations. Congress took notice. In 1996, and then in 2006, the law was amended, strengthening the overfishing provisions and ensuring the foundational importance of science.
“Consequently, we have turned the corner. Many fish populations have been rebuilt. The number experiencing overfishing has declined. And science-based catch are now in place for all federally-managed fish.
“In addition, fisheries profitability has increased. And jobs, even in the recreational sector, have been created. Although we have more work to do, the state of our fisheries is improving. It is certainly stronger now than at any time during my professional career.
“I am very concerned, however, with [H.R. 4742], as it rolls back key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that have boosted the health of our fisheries. Among its shortcomings, [H.R. 4742] would weaken the Act’s rebuilding requirements, reverse recent gains in science-based fisheries management, diminish the ability of managers to prevent overfishing of forage fish, and put basic fishery data, including information collected with taxpayer support, off-limits to the general public. Rather than revert to using policies and practices that were not successful in the past, we should build on the successes of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”
Despite Dr. Pikitch’s insightful testimony, H.R. 4742 made it through the committee process. However, it died on the House floor, where no vote was ever taken.
Unfortunately, bad fisheries bills, and particularly this bad fisheries bill, have as many lives as an old B-movie monster, and keep coming back from the dead every time that folks think that they are finally defeated for good.
Soon after the first death of H.R. 4742, Doc Hastings retired from Congress, never to return, but his bill came back in March 2015, this time designated H.R. 1335 and sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).
H.R. 1335 retained all of the bad provisions of its predecessor, and added a few more, including a provision that would tie up regional fishery management council deliberations in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by compelling those councils to repeatedly review the commercial/recreational allocations, whether or not such councils believed that such review was needed.
The resurrected legislation rampaged around the House long enough to get passed, but the Senate wasn’t foolish enough to feed that particular beast, and the bill died a much-deserved death in the upper chamber.
In January 2017, Rep. Young and his irredeemable bill were back again, this time in the guise of H.R. 200. It looked largely the same as it had when it was previously introduced.
However, as it wended its way through the committee process, this newest incarnation was amended to also include so-called “Modern Fish Act” language, language that was intended to relieve the recreational fishing sector from much of the burden of conserving and rebuilding stocks by lifting the annual catch limit requirement from the sector’s shoulders, requiring fishermen’s almost certainly biased data to be included in stock assessments, and further burdening commercial fisheries for the benefit of the recreational sector.
That resulted in a coalition of recreational fishing groups, that in the past had been wary of any bill called the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” to throw any remnant of their former principles to the wind and endorse H.R. 200.
With such support, H.R. 200 passed in the House on a relatively close, mainly party-line vote, but wiser heads in the Senate successfully caged it up and made sure that it died once again.
There was reason to hope that, after the 2018 mid-term elections and the change of control in the House, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act had finally breathed its last breath. But like so many hopes, this one was in vain.
Rep. Young has reincarnated the bill once again, for the fourth time in the past five years. This time, it bears a new number, H.R. 3697, but it has the same old name and the same distasteful purpose. The text isn’t generally available yet, although I’ve seen what is supposedly an accurate draft, and if that is the case, nothing much has changed.
The new twist this year is that Rep. Young has found a co-sponsor, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ), and that collaboration allows them to call the new bill a “bipartisan” effort, even though Van Drew is hardly representative of the Democratic Party’s position on fisheries issues. Instead, he is very representative of his coastal constituency in southern New Jersey, where fisheries conservation, in any form, is viewed with about the same enthusiasm, and a far more rancor, than cockroaches at a quaint Cape May inn.
As was the case with Doc Hastings' first bill, the southern New Jersey-based Recreational Fishing Alliance was in the forefront of those praising H.R. 3697’s introduction. Its Executive Director, Jim Donofrio, fawned
“Mr. Young and Mr. Van Drew are very well versed on the current Magnuson-Stevens bill [sic] and how it penalizes fishermen while stocks are healthy. Thanks to both of these great fisheries issue leaders for taking on the challenge of pragmatic Magnuson reform.”
However, the major national recreational fishing groups have not yet commented on the legislation.
The Garden State Seafood Association, the leading commercial fishing organization in New Jersey, also praised the bill, with its Executive Director saying that the organization
“has been advocating for MSA reform since 2009. We sincerely hope that Congressman Van Drew will receive the support he deserves from all commercial fishing groups.”
Lund’s Fisheries, a Cape May-based commercial fishing company that specializes in high-volume landings of low-value forage species, has also endorsed the bill. At least a few other regional fisheries associations, located elsewhere in the nation, also seem to be backing the legislation.
It’s not yet clear how broad any national commercial support will be.
On the other hand, the conservation community appears, not surprisingly, to be opposed. Of those who have taken positions, the Ocean Conservancy issued a very blunt statement that
“The fourth time is not a charm. The ideas proposed in H.R. 3697 were bad when they were first introduced in 2013, and they’re still bad today,”
“America is a fishing nation. We need strong laws to ensure we can protect the jobs and livelihoods that depend on this truly American way of life. Unfortunately, the bill introduced yesterday is yet one more example of U.S. leadership being jeopardized by special interests. This legislation would be catastrophic for the health of the oceans—and it could cost us some of our favorite seafood too.”
Other conservation groups will undoubtedly be announcing their positions soon.
But whatever they say, it’s clear that the Beast has risen from the dead one more time. And its also clear that conservation-minded anglers will have to join together and, along with everyone one else who supports healthy fish stocks, prepare to fight the same old fight at least one more time.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
About a week ago, I wrote a piece about the need for the recreational fishing and boating industries to start advocating for water quality issues, instead of rewarding polluters’ protectors, because without at least half-decent water quality, those industries could easily become irrelevant, no matter how many fish anglers are theoretically allowed to kill.
Usually, I write a piece like that once every year or so, then get back to more specific fisheries management issues, because there’s only so much you can say about pollution.
We know that it’s bad for the nation’s fishery resources, and we know that it pays—it pays for the polluters, because it’s cheaper than responsible disposal of waste, it pays for the politicians who oppose clean water actions, because the polluters will donate a lot to their cause, and it pays for organizations who support such politicians, and even call them “conservationists,” because that sort of ass-kissing helps convince folks to adopt the sort of policies that support corporate profits and other institutional goals.
Once I acknowledge that, which is something that I suspect most readers already know, I let the issue go dormant for another year, until a piece in the news convinces me that there’s a reason to address the topic once again.
However, in the past week, there has been enough action on the pollution front to revisit the topic about 12 months early.
Some of the news is good. The rest is…typical.
I’ll start with the good, because in today’s polarized political world, we too often think in black and white.
We label one party “good” on an issue, and one party “bad.”
That’s certainly true with pollution. Because most of the representatives from what I often think of as “the pig shit states,” that is, the states where people consider dumping manure, fertilizer runoff, pesticides and such into public waters to be a God-given American birthright, are Republicans, and actively support a pro-pollution platform that’s “good for jobs, growth, expanded trade and prosperity” (even if it kills fish and might result in people contracting any one of a number of loathsome diseases), that all Republicans are hostile to concepts such as clean air and clean water, while Democrats are consistent champions of the environment.
It’s a convenient stereotype, but like most stereotypes, it hides a deeper truth.
The Republican Party has a rich history of conservation that extends back to when Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, while a number of Democrats have historically opposed clean air and clean water initiatives that might hamper home-town industrial plants. Even as recently as last year, there were a few Democrats in the House of Representatives who were foolish enough to vote for H.R. 200, which would have severely weakened federal fisheries laws.
Now, it appears that some Republicans in the House and Senate, tired of being labeled anti-conservation, have stepped out of the shadows to form what they call the “Republican Roosevelt Conservation Caucus,” which will work to resolve important environmental issues.
The new caucus will look at such issues from a traditional Republican standpoint, seeking to solve problems through innovation rather than by more revolutionary approaches that would disrupt the existing economy. According to The Hill, no less a Republican than Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has said
“From a Republican point of view, I think we need to showcase that we care about conservation, we care about the environment, and we have innovative solutions that are not top-down regulatory solutions…
“[With respect to climate change], I believe the nine out of 10, not the one. I would encourage the president to look long and hard at the science and find the solution. I’m tired of playing defense on the environment.”
Of course, it’s possible that could be all talk. But with conservation/environmental issues becoming a top issue for many voters, it would be wise for Republicans seeking election in swing districts, and in a number of Republican-leaning districts as well, to build some pro-conservation credentials. While such credentials might not get them very far in some mining-country districts where it is still considered perfectly fine to strip off the tops of mountains and dump them into once-pristine brook trout streams, it will undoubtedly do the party some good in much of the United States.
And, more importantly, it will do the United States—including, hopefully, the nation’s coastal ecosystems, some real good as well.
But before then, business as usual goes on.
As I write this, there is a tropical storm, which may soon become a weak hurricane, approaching the Louisiana coast. While that’s typical of a Gulf Coast July, this storm presents a unique threat, as a fast-flowing Mississippi River is already swelled with water from inland rains, which have been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico and bringing pollution and devastated fisheries in their wake. As the Huffington Post describes it,
“A historic slow-moving flood of polluted Mississippi River water loaded with chemicals, pesticides and human waste from 31 states and two Canadian provinces is draining straight into the marshes and bayous of the Gulf of Mexico—the nurseries of…fishing grounds—upsetting the delicate balance of salinity and destroying the fragile ecosystem in the process. As the Gulf waters warm this summer, algae feed on the freshwater brew, smothering oxygen-starved marine life.”
The pending storm can only make things worse.
Two Louisiana congressmen, Senator Bill Cassidy and Rep. Steve Scalise, are asking the Secretary of Commerce to declare a fishery disaster, which would then allow Louisiana fishermen to seek financial relief for losses connected to the influx of polluted fresh water. Yet, even if they are successful, any relief that Louisiana fishermen and fishing-related businesses obtain will, at best, be temporary. The problem will recur.
A 2015 Environmental Protection Agency study predicted that, because of ongoing climate change, the future will see
“more intense and frequent rain storms leading to more nutrient runoff and warmer waters which are not able to hold as much dissolved oxygen.”
And a study that came out last year revealed that most of the pollution that plagues Louisiana and the broader Gulf of Mexico comes from well upstream. It found that 11 to 52 percent of the nitrate load in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya Basin comes from a single state, Iowa, and came to the conclusion that
“Gulf hypoxic areal goals…will be very difficult to achieved if nitrate retention cannot be improved in Iowa.”
In other words, the best way to prevent nitrate pollution in the Gulf of Mexico is to prevent states all along the Mississippi watershed from letting their “stuff” end up in the river, from whence it all flows downstream.
As I mentioned last week, the Obama administration had promulgated a rule, usually referred to as “Waters of the United States,” that intended to do just that thing, by treating anyone who dumped manure, pesticides, sewage or other pollutants into a flowing ditch, temporary wetland, seasonal stream or other minor waterway that flowed into a navigable river the same way that they’d treat someone who poured it into the main river itself.
Given Sen. Cassidy’s and Rep. Scalise’s seeming concern for Louisiana fishermen hurt by polluted Mississippi water, someone might be tempted to believe that they’d have been foursquare in support of the Obama administration rule. But such belief would be wrong.
While both of those legislators are apparently more than willing to use funds paid into the public purse, by taxpayers throughout the country, to bail out the troubled fishermen that they represent, they are not willing to compromise their unwavering support of the right of private property owners to befoul public waterways while in pursuit of a profit.
“[The Environmental Protection Agency’s] attempt to redefine ‘navigable waterways’ as every drainage ditch, backyard pond, and puddle is radical regulatory overreach that threatens to take away the rights of property owners and will lead to costly litigation and lost jobs.”
Because every private property owner between Missouri and Mississippi has an inalienable right to pile up a few tons of manure in a dry drainage ditch, secure in the knowledge that the next heavy rain will wash it away and start it on its long trip to the sea...
“When I’m in Louisiana, I constantly hear about the impacts this rule could have on private property, private property development, timberland, farmland and water bodies that would be subject to economic control…Instead of people in Louisiana deciding how to best use their property, the federal government will be able to dictate many land-use decisions…”
Of course, if people are deciding that the right use of their property is to pile up manure, pesticides, sewage or other pollutants, maybe the federal government ought to take a more active role.
If Sen. Cassidy asked fishermen, when he’s in Louisiana, whether they’d like to see a rule that caused pollution to abate, they might say something that he doesn’t really want to hear.
But in a way, it’s hard to blame such legislators. The polluters pay their campaign expenses, and many of the most impacted industries, like those who support recreational boating and fishing, aren’t making them pay any price for abetting the destruction of the Gulf’s, or the nation's, natural resources.
A recent article in Trade Only Today gives a glimpse into how that sort of thing works. It announced that a number of industry members, from groups such as the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the American Sportfishing Association, BOAT US, the Center for Sportfishing Policy and the Coastal Conservation Association recently met with President Trump, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
From what I can gather from the article, the need to keep farmers, ranchers and others from dumping their unwanted crap in the rivers never came up. Neither did the administration’s seeming support for the “Pebble Mine,” which would see toxic tailings pools built in the pristine watershed of Alaska’s salmon-rich Bristol Bay, nor the health problems created when coal-burning power plants cause organic mercury levels to rise in the flesh of pelagic fish such as bluefin tuna.
Instead, the boating and recreational fishing reps continued to be the polluters’ enablers, praising the politicians for
“expanding outdoor recreation activities on our public lands and waters,”
promoting (but not necessarily spending any money to actually take) international action to reduce marine debris and, in the incredibly false words of Center for Sportfishing Policy’s President Jeff Angers,
“good stewardship of public resources.”
If moving toward opening the Pebble Mine, and allowing pollutants to flow, unablated, into the Gulf of Mexico is Angers’ idea of “good stewardship,” then I think that I have a manure pond in Iowa that he might want to buy…
Sunday, July 7, 2019
There is a bill making its way through the North Carolina legislature that would require big changes to fishery management programs in that state and, if passed, could be a bellwether for fishery management in other states with troubled fisheries.
North Carolina House Bill 483, titled the “Let Them Spawn Act,” would require state fishery managers to establish size limits and other regulations on six troubled species of fish—southern flounder, spot, Atlantic croaker, striped mullet, southern kingfish and bluefish—that would assure that at least 75% of the fish in each stock would be able to spawn at least once before being caught and landed.
According to the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, which contributed to an article published on the website Reflector.com, a twenty-year decline in landings by the state’s commercial fishery demonstrate how low populations of such species have fallen, which is why such law is needed.
“The depletion of Atlantic croaker (85 percent commercial decline), kingfish (54 percent), striped mullet (47 percent), spot (94 percent), southern flounder (88 percent) and bluefish (78 percent) combine to create a 79 percent total decline in that time.”
Commercially and recreationally important fish species in North Carolina, including the species mentioned above, are already managed by the state pursuant to the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, which generally requires state managers to end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks and manage for a sustainable harvest. In addition, both Atlantic croaker and spot are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which notes, for both species, that their status, with respect to overfishing and whether the stocks are overfished is “unknown” but that, despite declining landings, “no management action triggered,” while bluefish are jointly managed by ASMFC and the federal Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which will be releasing a stock assessment update, that might or might not lead to management actions, in August.
Yet despite those ongoing management efforts—and North Carolina is planning to impose very strict new restrictions on southern flounder later this year—it does appear that all six species could use a little additional help.
Recorder.com quotes Joe Albea, host of the local outdoor television series Carolina Outdoor Journal, as saying
“It’s to allow these fish to get to a certain size to reproduce and restock the population. The population is down to the point that it’s necessary. Will it affect people in the short term? Yes, but in the long term it will be better for all of us.
“It’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point, but [recovery] is going to be up to the fish and we can’t control that. Ten years ago it was known that [the fish populations were declining], and they didn’t do anything about it. If they had done it then, we wouldn’t be facing what we are [with southern flounder], which is a closure.”
“The bedrock policy that assures that fish stocks have the opportunity to spawn at least once will significantly—and quickly—add to the populations of declining and collapsing fish stocks. A healthy spawning class of adult fishes will increase yield and subsequent resiliency and growth of the fishery to the benefit of all user groups.”
At the same time, not everyone supports the proposed law.
“We don’t believe a blanket approach to multiple species is the way to manage them. It would impact both commercial and recreational fishing. The restrictions would be harder on the recreational fishermen, since they catch smaller fish.”
Yet, despite its opposition to the Let Them Spawn Act, the Fisheries Association has not offered any comprehensive, alternative plan for returning the depleted fish stocks to health.
And then there are the people that, despite copious evidence to the contrary, just reject the entire concept that fishermen can do harm to fish stocks. WWAY, a television station serving the Cape Fear area of the state, quotes recreational angler Skyler Gable as making the remarkable statement that
“I think overfishing is just more of overpopulation in general.
“Pretty frustrating. I definitely would say that, there shouldn’t really be rules on fishing. The ocean is massive.”
WWAY also quotes commercial fisherman Joe Romano, who opined that
“We’re the scapegoats, and this is the scapegoat bill.
“It will hurt recreational fishermen just as bad, if not worse. In terms of commercial fishermen, you can’t, top-down, come up with this one-size-fits-all management structure.”
Romano, too, denies that fishermen are causing declines in fish abundance.
“It has to do with environmental conditions or the weather conditions that particular season or year. Now, they’re trying to make it such that now we have to watch every one of these fish that are typically thousands and thousands schooled together.”
While such objections are easy to dismiss, those that come from professional fishery managers deserve a lot more serious consideration, and the Director of North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries has expressed reservations about the bill. He admits that the legislation’s length at maturity requirement could have value, but notes that it could lead to increased discard mortality. He also suggests that the bill leans too heavily on size limits, and so gives too little consideration to other possible management approaches.
There is a lot of merit in the North Carolina DMF’s position. At the same time, it is clear that whatever more varied management approaches have been used to date did not successfully restore the stocks in question.
In the end, everyone probably ought to admit that the Let Them Spawn Act is not, in itself, a panacea, and that setting size limits at or slightly above a species’ age at maturity will not solve all fishery management ills.
At the same time, when historic fishery management efforts have not successfully halted population declines, ended overfishing and/or rebuilt overfished stocks, something like the Let Them Spawn Act is probably needed to upset the existing paradigm and force fishery managers to investigate new, previously untried and perhaps politically unpopular management approaches.
That’s what we saw in 1985, when Amendment 3 to ASMFC’s striped bass management plan established steadily increasing size limits that assured that the relatively healthy 1982 year class, and all subsequent year classes, would survive to enter the spawning stock and rebuild the collapsed striped bass population.
And it looks like we’re going to need a 35-inch minimum size length imposed on the striped bass population today, to allow just about all of the females to spawn at least once and rebuild a stock that has become overfished once again.
If the bluefish stock assessment update contains bad news when it is released next month, perhaps it will also be time to implement a size limit of at least 12 inches, the length at which about 50% of the fish are sexually mature, on that species, in addition to whatever bag limits, quotas and season are also already in place or deemed to be appropriate once the results of the assessment are out.
On the other hand, if nothing but size limits set at or just above age at maturity were used for other popular commercial and recreational fish species, such as tautog, black sea bass, weakfish or summer flounder were used to regulate such fisheries, overfishing and quick depletion would be the inevitable result, because such size limits would still cause too many fish to be removed from the water and lead the spawning potential of the stock to fall unacceptably low.
Bag limits, seasons and annual catch limits are essential tools that must be used in conjunction with size limits to acheive the required result of healthy and sustainable stocks.
Thus, while laws like the Let Them Spawn Act can provide a valuable minimum standard for regulating fisheries, and while the concept of setting minimum sizes high enough to let fish spawn at least once is a very sensible general rule, we should view such laws more as a first step, rather than as a final target, in achieving a conservative fisheries management regime.
That said, it’s a concept that should be incorporated in most fishery management plans, and one that more states should examine.
The next step for North Carolina’s Let Them Spawn Act will come when the bill is considered by the state Senate. If the Senate approves, it will go to the Governor’s desk to either be signed into law or vetoed.
I, for one, wish it a safe passage.
Friday, July 5, 2019
If anyone is honest with themselves when they look back at their lives, they’ll probably find a time or two that they’re truly ashamed of, a time when they knew that something was probably wrong, but they failed to act, or speak out, or at least try to prevent it from occurring.
If they’re even halfway decent folks, the memory of such a time will chafe at their conscience for the rest of their lives, and remind them that, in the future, they have a duty speak.
I know that I've done just that.
I failed my trial of conscience more than ten years ago, down in Houston, when I still sat on the Executive Board of the Coastal Conservation Association. The Center for Sportfishing Policy—what was being called the Center for Coastal Conservation, back then—was still in the planning stage, and I sat in on a number of committee discussions about it.
CCA was a legitimate conservation advocate at the time, and had prevailed on a number of important issues. It was a proudly independent organization, that forged its own path, and was very careful about lending out its name or affiliating itself with other organizations. Even a simple press release was sent around and vetted by various members and staff, and carefully edited, before it went out to the public.
As soon as CCA staff began discussing the possibility of creating the Center, I became concerned.
In my experience with various local angling organizations, mergers of conservation and industry interests rarely have happy endings. The conservation groups always mean well going into such arrangements, but they soon became addicted to the funding and in-kind contributions from industry, which certainly help pay the bills and aid in meeting and exceeding membership goals. Thus, they acquiesce when their industry partners give lip service to conservation, but commit the joint venture to positions and policies that best benefit industry’s bottom line in the near term, rather than the long-term health of coastal fish stocks.
I should have voiced those concerns, loudly and clearly, as soon as the proposed Center for Coastal Conservation was put on the table. I don’t pretend to believe that my speaking would have made any difference; the top leadership were fully committed to their course, and it is highly unlikely that anything that I said might have affected their plans. Still, as a member of the Executive Board, and of one of the relevant committees discussing the matter, I had a duty to speak out loud and clear.
To my shame, that was a duty I shirked.
In the end, I did the wrong thing, and stayed silent. I let my native cynicism slip, and trusted someone I had come to know and deeply respect over the years, who gave assurances that the Center for Sportfishing Policy “won’t get into the nitty-gritty of fisheries management.”
Instead, it would address larger issues, such as nutrient inflows creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which were far too large and too politically fraught for the relatively small CCA to take on alone.
Maybe he lied, and intended to see the Center involved in fisheries matters from its very first day. I’d like to believe that he began with good intentions, just to see the Center morph into a kind of Frankenstein’s creature that destroyed the soul and the mission of the organization that had sparked its creation.
In the end, it doesn’t matter.
The Center got deeply involved in “the nitty-gritty” of fisheries issues, pushing the Secretary of Commerce to allow anglers to overfish Gulf of Mexico red snapper back in 2017, sought to weaken federal fisheries laws with the Modern Fish Act, and works hard every year to get its representatives on the regional fishery management councils, where they work for industry-friendly fishery management measures.
But the Center has not gotten deeply involved in the sort of big, national issues such as water quality, which was supposedly the reason why it was first created.
In fact, it has consistently aligned itself with pollution-friendly politicians at every level, who because of their anti-conservation bias, tend to be willing to weaken fishery laws to allow larger recreational harvests and who, at the state level, are willing to nominate the Center’s preferred candidates state and regional management boards.
Taking on polluters, who are often important campaign contributors, could destroy such a cozy arrangement.
Consider the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” It’s a vast hypoxic area that lies off the mouth of the Mississippi River, which reaches its maximum size during the summer when seepage and runoff from farms, lawns, sewage plants and other sources of nitrogen and phosphate pollution wash into the Mississippi River watershed, a broad expanse of the United States contained in a rough triangle that stretches from western Pennsylvania to eastern Montana and down to the mouth of the Mississippi River southeast of New Orleans.
At best, the dead zone spans a section of ocean about the size of the State of Delaware. Within the zone, low levels of oxygen make it difficult, if not impossible, for fish to survive, and it is estimated that losses due to the dead zone cost the fishing and tourism industries in the region about $82 million per year.
This year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that the dead zone will be larger. At a predicted 7,800 square miles, it will be about the size of Massachusetts, and just a little smaller than the record-large dead zone of nearly 8,800 square miles, which occurred just two years ago. The size of this year’s dead zone is hardly surprising, given that in the month of May alone, about 156,000 tons of nitrates and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus was washed down the Mississippi drainage and into the Gulf, most coming, according to NOAA,
“from human activities, such as urbanization and agriculture, occurring throughout the Mississippi River watershed.”
“This year’s historic and sustained river flows will test the accuracy of these models in extreme conditions, which are likely to occur more frequently in the future according to the latest National Climate Assessment. The assessment predicts an increase in the frequency of very heavy precipitation events in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Southeast regions, which would impact nutrient input to the northern Gulf of Mexico and the size of the hypoxic zone.”
It is exactly the sort of issue that, we were told at the beginning, the Center for Sportfishing Policy was created to address.
Yet if you go into the Center for Sportfishing Policy’s “Media Room,” and go all the way back to July 17, 2008, when the organization was first created, you won’t see a single press release calling out for water quality reform, for federal legislation that will address dead zones in the Gulf of elsewhere, or action on other serious pollution issues. All you will see is efforts to hamper the commercial fishing industry, allow recreational fishermen to kill more fish, and otherwise support the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries.
It’s probably not surprising that the Center leaves the polluters alone, because the same legislators who don’t really care if some farmer in Iowa lets pig manure flow into
the rivers are usually pretty indifferent about the long-term consequences of killing too many fish.
That sort of attitude is reflected in some of the “Conservationist of the Year” awards that the Center hands out.
It’s particularly interesting to look at some of the Center's recent awards in the context of their recipients' opposition to regulations intended to keep large volumes of things such as pig shit—and human waste as well—out of America’s rivers and ultimately out of the Gulf.
Those regulations reached their apex in the Obama-era “Waters of the United States” rule released in 2015, which an article in Politico described as protecting
“tributaries that have physical signs of flowing water, even if they don’t run all year round, and ditches that ‘look and act’ like flowing tributaries.”
That would seem to make sense. If it’s illegal to dump a few hundred—or a few thousand—gallons of pig shit into a navigable river, it should be illegal to dump the same stuff into a ditch, even a ditch on private property, that flows into such river and ultimately deposits the shit in the same place.
But that sort of thinking gets the shit-dumpers concerned. The American Pork Producers Council, for example, was worried that they might run into real problems if drainage ditches and other waterways that fed into navigable rivers were covered by the Clean Water Act. It noted that
“Under the [Clean Water Act], there is an absolute prohibition on discharging any pollutant, whether manure, chemical pesticides or fertilizer or even a seed of corn, into a [Waters of the United States]-covered feature without a federal permit.”
And since the Pork people clearly believed that it was their right as American citizens to dump pig shit, pesticides and fertilizer into the nation’s rivers (even if they had to do so in a roundabout way), regardless of the impacts downstream, they lobbied for their representatives in Washington to kill the new rule.
According to the piece in Politico, a number of other industries accustomed to dumping questionable things into ditches, and so into our rivers, including the
“American Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Farmers of America, pesticide manufacturers, mining companies, home builders, state and local governments, water utilities, flood control districts, the timber industry, railroads, real estate developers and even golf courses”
lobbied against the rule because, if it remained intact, they might be forced to deal with their own shit, and no longer be allowed let it to flow downstream to become someone else's problem.
So when we look at who the Center for Sportfishing Policy recognized as “conservationists” since 2015, we find 2019 awards to Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), who were the primary sponsors of the Modern Fish Act. Although that law, as ultimately passed, was essentially toothless, in its original version it posed significant threats to effective, science-based management of recreational saltwater fisheries.
That hardly seems like something that a “conservationist” would support. But then when we consider the contribution that both the Senator and Congressman made to preserving the dead zone in the Gulf, with their opposition to the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule, it all makes a kind of sense.
“a major win for Mississippi’s farmers, ranchers, private property owners, small businesses, and local municipalities”
as they could continue to dump their stuff into drainage ditches that, in the end, lead to the sea and keep the dead zone alive, while Rep. Graves voted to prevent implementation of the Waters rule, which he believed would
“infringe upon the rights of private property owners and have a devastating effect on small business and economic development projects in southern Louisiana”
“diminish the liberties of hardworking Americans”
who apparently should have the freedom to dump shit in a river, so long as they do so indirectly and from a private waterway.
When you think about it, there is a sort of intellectual and philosophical consistency between sponsoring a bill that would have let anglers kill more fish, and promoting policies that sustain the Gulf dead zone. Both, in the end, decrease the number of fish subject to the public trust, although calling someone who supports either action a “conservationist” might be stretching credibility just a bit too far.
I couldn’t find a release announcing who the Center named as “conservationists” in 2017 or 2018, although there may have been something that I missed, but in 2016, the award was given to Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), largely because of his ardent support for H.R. 1335, a bill that many long-time conservationists dubbed “the Empty Oceans Act” for its likely impact on the nation’s fish stocks, and also for his support of H.R. 2406 which, the Center opined,
“will enhance fishing opportunities on federal lands and waters and protect anglers from unnecessary restrictions.”
Rep. Bishop didn’t care for the Waters of the United States rule either, and later praised the Environmental Protection Agency’s Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler for creating
“much needed clarity and certainty for America’s farmers, contractors, landowners, and ranchers”
by reducing the scope of the Waters rule, allowing pollution to continue to flow from private lands and, of course, keeping the dead zone well-fed.
Again, that might not sound like the acts of a “conservationist” to most folks, but the Center apparently defines things in its own special way.
It’s time for the Center, and its component industry and angler’s rights organizations, to start revising their definitions, because one thing that was true was said down in Houston, more than a decade ago: It will take the full political and financial influence of industry and anglers, along with the conservation community that the Center leaves out, to challenge the pesticide and fertilizer dumpers, the leaky sewage plants and the pig shit folks.
And that challenge needs to happen, because things are getting worse.
The Gulf may have the biggest dead zone in the nation, but it’s not the only one.
Chesapeake Bay has been suffering from a dead zone for years. Thanks to effective regulations that restrict discharges, it had begun to shrink. However, the 2019 dead zone is expected to be very large, probably one of the largest on record. Worldwide, hypoxia problems have increased by 1,000 percent since 1950.
“Florida’s Water Crisis Has Sport Fishing on the Brink of Collapse,”
and reports that declining water quality is seriously and negatively impacting both fish habitat and fish numbers. The article describes a myriad of problems ranging from agricultural and septic tank runoff causing toxic algae blooms to freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee that degrade once-productive estuaries.
So far, the recreational fishing and boating industries have been relatively indifferent to the problem.
The American Sportfishing Association, which represents the tackle industry, has been actively advocating for actions to improve water quality in Florida, but has not taken a leading role on systemic issues like those that create regional dead zones.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association has struck a similar pose, advocating for cleaner water in Florida, and even taking steps to reduce boating’s environmental impacts, while shying away from addressing polluters head-on.
And, as I mentioned, the Center for Sportfishing Policy has been taking virtually no position at all.
That’s not good enough.
The Center for Sportfishing Policy, and members such as the American Sportfishing Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association, have created a vision that correlates increased recreational landings of fish with greater angler participation, and the resultant greater industry income.
So far, they’ve attempted to achieve those higher landings by weakening fisheries regulation and taking fish away from the commercial fleet. But even if they were successful at those things, they will ultimately fail in their efforts if they don’t successfully address the water quality issue.
Because there won’t be any fish for anglers to land, whatever the rules, if those fish have nowhere to live.