Thursday, November 6, 2014


The political landscape changed on November 4, when the Republican Party gained control of the United States Senate. 

When Congress convenes next January, the federal legislature will no longer be gridlocked; with the same party controlling both houses, we should see far more bills passed by the House and Senate and forwarded to the President’s desk.

The only question left to be answered is whether those bills will be good or bad for the future of America’s living marine resources.

Right now, I’m cautiously pessimistic, but there’s a lot that remains to be seen.

It’s not merely an issue of one party versus another.  Folks like to stereotype Democrats as supporting conservation measures and Republicans as opposing them, but in the fisheries arena, that’s far from true.

Some of the staunchest Democrats in the Senate, including New York’s Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan (who lost her seat in the mid-terms) have either supported so-called “flexibility” legislation that would weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Magnuson Act or otherwise attempted to defer the application of needed fisheries conservation measures.

On the other hand, President George W. Bush, a quintessential Republican, did far more to promote marine fish conservation than any other president.  Former Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrist was one of the prime movers behind the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, the landmark law that changed the face of fisheries conservation in America.  And the late Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was such a noted champion of good fisheries management that the law governing U.S. fisheries now bears his name.

However, the current Republican leadership has rejected the strong support for conservation that was, for many years, a party tradition dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt.  Instead, it has adopted a policy that is blatantly anti-science, anti-wilderness and anti-clean water, and extremely pro-development, pro-exploitation and pro-short-term profit.  Risks to the ecosystem that we must continue to live in, and to the integrity of natural communities, are dismissed out of hand—if they are considered at all.

Thus, once the new Congress is seated, they are likely to pose a number of direct and indirect threats to marine fisheries resources on every coast of the United States.

Up in the pristine waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, the world’s largest surviving salmon run—and the recreational and commercial fisheries that it supports—will likely face greater threats with a resurgent effort to permit the proposed Pebble Mine to begin operations.

For those unfamiliar with the Pebble Mine, the proposed mining project would create two separate operations that would remove about 7.5 billion metric tons of copper, gold and molybdenum ore from watershed of the Iliamna River, a waterway which supports not only a thriving sockeye salmon run, but also a robust population of large, wild rainbow trout.  

The resultant commercial and recreational fishing industries are important drivers of the local economy; both fishermen and the broader conservation community have opposed the mine fearing that mine tailings and toxic byproducts of the mining operations could easily end up in the river, severely degrading its ability to sustain the trout and salmon runs.  

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed, placing a serious roadblock in the way of future mine development.

We already have undeniably grave problems with federal agencies blocking resource production on federal lands in Alaska.  Now to see a federal agency overstep its authority and move prematurely to block even the consideration of a permit for potential activity on state lands is something I simply cannot accept,"

"When it comes to the Pebble Mine, EPA has shown that they are willing to disregard due process and lawfully established permitting procedures to ensure the failure of any project like this. EPA's desperate attempt to kill a potential mine should signal a major red flag to businesses."
Senator Mark Begich, who represented the State of Alaska, staunchly opposed the mine.  However, he lost his seat in the mid-term election, and his successor, Dan Sullivan, has objected to the EPA action in language very similar to that of Sen. Murkowski.

On the Atlantic coast, we see the same Sen. Vitter opposing legislation that would help control pollution in Chesapeake Bay and thus enhance the Bay’s ability to support healthy fish populations.  Vitter justifies taking another position with no immediate impact on his home state of Louisiana by saying that, pursuant to the settlement of a lawsuit arising out of earlier legislation intended to clean up the Chesapeake,

“the EPA agreed to establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment flow into the Chesapeake Bay…EPA has purported to dictate not only the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment that can flow into the Chesapeake Bay, but, by allocating those loads in excruciating detail and crediting only the load reduction actions that are included in its Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model, EPA also dictated the manner in which individual companies and sectors within the economy must comply with the total load limitations.

“EPA's Bay TMDL has enormous repercussions for private landowners, small businesses, and local governments throughout the Chesapeake Bay region…Left unchecked, the TMDL could represent a national precedent that would force state and local officials across the country to cede their land use authority to EPA.”

One senator’s hostility to conservation efforts certainly shouldn’t be used to taint the reputation of an entire party.  We can only hope that there will be more than a few Republican senators who will place their constituents’ interests in clean water and healthy fish stocks, now and in the future, above a party dogma that often opposes even reasonable regulations.  

However, given party leadership’s frequently expressed preference for promoting business activity at the expense of environmental and conservation concerns, there is real reason to be concerned that views similar to Vitter’s may be held by other lawmakers.

And that would do our fisheries no good at all.

As a salt water angler, my greatest concern relates to the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which many expect to be reauthorized sometime in 2015 or 2016.    

In the current session of Congress, the reauthorization bill that took shape in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, was so bad that those concerned with marine conservation gave it the sobriquet of the “Empty Oceans Act.”  It was a bill that would turn back a decade and a half of progress and take federal fisheries management back to the days when stocks need not be rebuilt and short-term economic concerns trumped every other issue.

On the other hand, the bill that has been taking shape in what had been a Democrat-controlled Senate held a lot of promise.  It wasn’t perfect, but it kept the key concepts of existing law intact, and included additional provisions that would help to fine-tune the management process.  However, it was sponsored by Sen. Begich, who lost the election, and the membership and composition of the subcommittee charged with drafting the bill will change somewhat in the upcoming year, so it’s hard to predict just what will occur.

It’s virtually certain that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida will chair the subcommittee.  Sen. Rubio was the ranking member of the subcommittee that produced the most recent Senate draft of the bill, which could not have emerged without his cooperation, so there is reason to at least hope that such draft might serve as a starting point for Senate discussions next year.

Thus, if Sen. Rubio lived in Alaska, where the benefits of fisheries management have long been accepted and understood, I probably wouldn’t be overly worried right now.  

Unfortunately, he represents Florida, where fisheries issues—and most particularly the fierce and often irrational red snapper debate at both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils—rage and some constituents will undoubtedly be demanding some sort of fundamental change in the law.  Such demands are likely to push Sen. Rubio toward amendments that are not in the long-term interests of either fish or fishermen.

There is also the question of whether, in the runup to a presidential election in which Sen. Rubio might well wish to compete, party ideology and the need to demonstrate an ideological purity to potential primary voters who sit on the right wing of his party might influence how Sen. Rubio might address both the conservation and the economic aspects of the Magnuson Act.

The possibility that the ranking member, or one or more other minority members, of the subcommittee might wish to weaken conservation measures should not be ignored.  It is not yet clear who the ranking member might be, but if he or she comes from a state where the fishing industry is militantly anti-Magnuson, the impetus to weaken the law might well come from the Democratic side of the aisle.

So will the Republican takeover of the Senate help or hurt fish populations?

Right now, I can’t honestly say.

I’ve been a Republican  since 1972, when I tujrned 18, and quite a few—I suspect most—of the folks who I fish with are Republicans, too.  So I would like to believe that legislators in the party that I’ve belonged to for 40-plus years would walk in the steps of Republicans before them and protect our fish populations.

On the other hand, over the past decade, my party’s leadership has become far less receptive to conservation concerns, and much more willing to degrade the environment that we all live in, justifying such short-sighted action by claiming that it will produce a few jobs or stimulate some sort of economic activity.

Fisheries issues have often transcended mere party politics, with regional concerns and—dare I say it—constituents’ wishes opening the door to true bipartisan solutions.

At the same time, today’s political polarization is more intense than it was at any time in the history of the Magnuson Act, and may just be too much to overcome.

So, for now, we can just wait and watch, and be ready to intervene with our own local legislators, attempting to put them back on track when they seem ready to stray and encouraging them to stay on course when they do the right thing.

Any way that you look at it, it’s going to be a long couple of years.

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