Sunday, June 14, 2015


Nearly three months ago, the Obama administration’s National Ocean Council issued its first Report on the Implementation of the National Ocean Policy.  The report depicted a clearly beneficial program, intended to be

“a comprehensive and collaborative framework for assuring the long-term health, resilience, safety, and productivity of our coastal and marine ecosystems and communities, as well as the global mobility of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security.”
Programs being implemented pursuant to the policy include the creation of a task force to fight illegal fishing on an international scale, coordinating a “rigs to reefs” policy in which old oil platforms may be used to create artificial fish-holding structure, developing the means to rapidly detect dangerous algae blooms and a host of similar worthwhile projects.

Listed under the heading of “Local Choices” is a marine spatial planning proposal, which would create

“one approach for regions to identify [the] needs [of multiple communities] and to use science-based decision making to address overlaps and potential conflicts in a proactive manner.”
The report suggests that would be done by

“the establishment of regional partnerships among the Federal government, States, and Tribes, with substantial public engagement…Through this shared process, Federal agencies are committed to better supporting regional priorities to enhance regional economic, environmental, social, and cultural well-being.”
The organized recreational fishing community didn’t have much of a reaction to the report’s release, perhaps because they were dedicating all of their efforts and resources toward tearing the heart out of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and could not afford any distractions.

However, when the National Ocean Policy was first announced a few years ago, it met with some very strong opposition from the same folks who are now trying to weaken federal fisheries law.  It’s not hard to imagine that once the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization is settled, for good or for ill, the National Ocean Policy will once again be firmly in their sights.

Opposition to the policy took two forms.  One was the sort of general hostility to the President’s executive action that we can see in an op-ed by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, published in The Hill, which said

“Enacting laws through Executive order sets a dangerous precedence [sic], particularly when it threatens to minimize or even supersede the role of existing law, which in this case is federal fisheries law enacted in 1976 (Magnuson-Stevens Act).  The [National Ocean Policy] itself provides excessive influence to the [White House Council on Environmental Quality] and works to further exclude much of the decision-making process at the regional fisheries management level, thereby creating a bias towards a handful of appointed, potentially connected industry and conservation groups from the Washington DC area who are removed from the day-to-day needs and concerns of coastal constituents…”
“The argument in favor of protecting fish populations from habitat destruction and water pollution is truly admirable.  However, when advocates for a cause willingly accept and promote the circumvention of the legislative process to achieve their goals, then it’s not just our oceans which are jeopardized but the very ‘health and benefit’ of all America.”
Such rhetoric seems well-intentioned, if a bit misguided.  However, other comments made by the RFA make it pretty clear that their opposition to the National Ocean Policy stemmed not from any high-minded desire to protect the Constitution, but rather from something more prosaic—an overblown fear that conservation imperatives might shut them out of current fishing grounds.

“The RFA has made it very clear the National Ocean Council threatens to override all of our current federal fisheries management processes, threatens the integrity of our recreational fishing councils and creates an overarching bureaucracy, which could summarily dismiss all input from stakeholders.  It has the very real possibility of arbitrarily banning sportfishing activities throughout U.S. coastal waters and we are absolutely opposed to this presidential decree.”
The stance of the seven organizations which now comprise the Center for Coastal Conservation was more nuanced, but ultimately raised the same concern.  In a joint letter to the co-chairs of the National Ocean Council, they noted

“the National Objective 2 of [Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning], to ‘[r]educe cumulative impacts on environmentally sensitive resources and habitats in ocean, coastal and Great Lakes waters,’ can be interpreted to mean identifying areas in which certain ocean uses, such as recreational fishing, will ultimately be restricted.  The recreational fishing community is not opposed to limiting fishing activities to conserve vulnerable habitats or to stop overfishing when other management options have been ineffective, so long as these decisions are scientifically sound…
"The final implementation plan and upcoming CMSP Handbook should clearly state that the authority to manage fishing activities will remain solely with these existing fisheries management bodies, which have decades of experience in fisheries management and through which our community is adequately represented.”
As we move toward implementation of the National Ocean Policy, it’s probably time to ask whether those concerns have real-world validity, or whether they are an overreaction to the mere possibility that some small but ecologically critical areas of ocean may be closed to angling.

Decades of land-use management throughout the United States provides plenty of guidance.  The land, even more than the ocean, presents a Gordian knot of conflicting uses.  Heavy industrial plants are not built alongside places of worship or elementary schools; suburban residential tracts are kept free slaughterhouses and pig farms.

There is a price to be paid for such orderly land use.  Small sacrifices must sometimes be made.  A homeowner might not be able to pave over a two-acre lot, or subdivide his or her land into condos.  While that might entail some personal inconvenience or economic hardship, on the whole, the neighborhood, and the region, is better off when such incompatible uses are not allowed.

Things are no different beyond the shore.  LNG plants shouldn’t be built on fish-holding bottom, and beds of deep-water corals need protection from trawls.

Fishing groups protest National Ocean Policy and speak against special planning, yet right now, down in Delaware, are celebrating a decision to remove commercial fish pots from artificial reefs.  And in Rhode Island, a new offshore wind farm is being built away from important fish habitat, while the cables taking the power to shore avoid beds of eelgrass and important hard bottom.

Here in New York, a decade ago, fishermen were exultant when a proposed LNG plant was never built at the mouth of Long Island Sound, and still fight to prevent another such plant that is proposed for the ocean off Long Beach.

They don’t connect their celebrations and struggles with spatial planning, yet it is nothing less.  Saying that “This place is wrong for a gas plant,” and “Don’t build a wind farm where we like to fish” is nothing less than endorsing the same marine planning in practice that they reject in concept.

I was a part of the planning process off Long Island, assisting the New York Department of State to identify places of value to anglers; birders and divers and commercial fishermen played their role, too.  As a result, our wrecks and our reefs and hard bottom were noted, and put largely off-limits to developers’ plans.  Right now, the same process that protected our ocean is unfolding in Long Island Sound.
It is not something to fear.  It is something to welcome, that will benefit us all in the end.

As I sit near my window and write this, the warm summer breeze blowing into the room, I can say in all honesty that I don’t want to live next to a pig farm, and can rely on my town’s special planning to keep swine away.

In just the same way, anglers on every coast should be able to rely on marine spatial planning to prevent the inappropriate use of waters important to anglers, and to keep critical fish habitat intact. 


  1. Recreational fishing is by its very definition a means of fishing defined by limits. The choice amounts to having fish to pursue, or not. Anglers need to pull their heads out of the sand. We are dependent upon habitat and finite resources.Those whose first concern is profit are focused much more on who will catch the last fish than the future of fishing and the natural resources that support it.

  2. The comment above perfectly explains the issue with commercial fishing. They pretend to care about the environment, but they are the ones who want to abuse our natural resources for profit. The idea that a few folks out with their families will "kill all the fish" is laughable to anyone not blinded by a desire for money.