Sunday, August 28, 2016
FISHERMEN AND THE PROPOSED NEW ENGLAND MARINE MONUMENT
Marine conservation groups are working hard to convince the White House to create a national monument at the edge of the continental shelf off New England, primarily to protect colonies of deep-water corals.
There are good arguments for protecting the corals. They take hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years to grow, yet can easily be destroyed by activities such as bottom trawling. At the same time, they are a keystone element to a unique ecosystem that cannot be maintained if the corals are destroyed.
Given that the proposed New England marine monument is about 150 miles from the nearest point of land, in an area not easily reached and not heavily fished, one would think that there would be little opposition to the proposal.
However, salt water conservation issues are never resolved easily, and there is actually vocal opposition to the proposal, as well as substantial support.
The leadership of the eight federal fishery management councils reportedly object to the creation of the marine monument because doing so would ignore the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s mandate to
“achieve optimum yield from the nation’s fishery resources and may negatively impact jobs and recreational opportunities.”
According to the Hartford Courant, such opposition is also based on the belief that
“creation of the marine monument could shift fishing operations to less sustainable areas, and that any designation of a protected marine habitat needs to have lots of open consideration and public input of the kind that regional councils already provide.”
However, given that Magnuson-Stevens defines optimum yield as
“the amount of fish which—
(A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems; [and]
(B) Is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social or ecological factor… [emphasis added]”
the optimum yield argument rings pretty hollow.
It’s likely that the Hartford Courant nailed the real reason for the councils’ opposition when it refers to “open consideration and public input of the kind that regional councils already provide;” in essence, the councils likely view any White House involvement in the deep-sea corals issue as an unwelcome invasion upon the councils’ turf.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission also expressed concerns about the proposed marine monument, saying that
“If the President chooses to use the Antiquities Act to protect deep-sea corals, the Commission requested that the designated area be limited to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects being protected. Additionally, the Commission requested the area be limited to depths greater than 900 meters and encompass any or all of the region seaward of this line out to the outer limit of the exclusive economic zone.”
ASMFC’s concerns first arose at a meeting of its American Lobster Management Board. They do not seem to have a scientific or political basis; instead, they seem to reflect a concern that the creation of a marine monument might impact the handful of lobster boats that fish in the area that might become part of the proposed monument.
ASMFC’s speed in reacting to and effectively opposing the proposed marine monument makes an interesting contrast with the glacial slowness which has characterized its management of the declining southern New England lobster stock. Although fears of the stock’s collapse first surfaced in a 2010 stock assessment, ASMFC has yet to take meaningful management measures that might help to halt the decline. Such delay amply demonstrates ASMFC’s strong institutional bias which leads it to oppose any sort of conservation measures, rather than to adopt them.
Thus, both the councils’ leadership’s and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s opposition to the proposed marine monument seem to be based on essentially frivolous grounds. However, others have concerns that can’t be so easily dismissed.
Richard P. Ruais, the Executive Director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, a commercial fishing group, noted that
“In our fishery, federal regulations require all commercial and recreational vessels to catch each fish, one at a time, exclusively using hook and line or harpoon…
“The greatest difficulty ABTA has with the Atlantic monument proposal is the fact that it contains a prohibition on all forms of fishing including the types of fishing gear used by our fishermen. In this connection, we cannot state more emphatically: our fishing methods cannot possibly have a negative effect on deep sea coral or any other sea bottom attributes because we are using ‘surface’ and ‘sub-surface’ fishing gear, sustainable fishing methods that do not come into contact with the sea bottom…”
A similar point was raised, in a more hysterical fashion, by the American Sportfishing Association, the trade association that represents the recreational fishing tackle industry. In a statement intended to mobilize anglers against the proposed marine monument, ASA wrote
“Do you view recreational fishing as an extractive activity on par with oil drilling and commercial bottom trawling? Of course you don’t.
“But that’s just how anti-fishing groups are trying to label us. They are trying to block all fishing—recreational included—in a newly proposed Marine National Monument off the coast of New England, even though there is no evidence that recreational fishing impacts the habitat in these areas…”
ASA’s appeal is pure hyperbole, intended to grab anglers by the gut instead of the brain, and spur them into a knee-jerk reaction. And therein lies its danger, not just to the proposed marine monument, but to the overall cause of marine conservation.
The marine trades publication Trade Only Today observed that
“The controversy has exposed deep fault lines between commercial fishermen fiercely opposed to the new federal restrictions on their industry and many recreational fishermen who argue that the preserve would benefit fishing in the region.”
Illustrating that theme, the Hartford Courant quoted a Norwalk, Connecticut recreational fisherman, Taylor Ingraham, who supports the marine monument proposal, calling the area
“incredibly unique, incredibly diverse,”
noting that the region hosts
“the largest collection and density of whales and dolphins in the northern Atlantic,”
and observing that
“If we damage it, it would take decades and decades to come back, if it ever would come back.”
Marine conservation groups can’t pay enough to buy that kind of support. Thus, they should take care not to alienate recreational (and commercial) fishermen who currently are and always should be their allies.
The first step to avoiding such alienation is remembering why the New England marine monument is being proposed.
The purpose is to protect deep-water corals and the habitat that they create.
The various conservation groups involved with the issue recognize that the corals are threatened by “industrial fishing” operations that use “gear that contacts the bottom” and “can easily break or topple coral structures.” One such group, Earthjustice, notes that
“With technology advancements, the deep ocean is becoming more accessible than ever to oil and gas exploration and industrial fishing.
“If these [areas] are not placed under permanent protection now, they are at risk of being destroyed by resource extraction activities, such as bottom-scouring fishing gear… [emphasis added]”
No one is suggesting, or would be foolish enough to suggest, that deep-sea coral habitat is threatened by anglers trolling their baits or lures 1,000 feet above the seafloor, or by a commercial boat harpooning a bluefin that swims within a few feet of the surface.
So why are some conservation groups so willing to alienate important current and potential supporters by proposing that they be banned from the contemplated marine monument?
It doesn’t make sense.
It’s not as if the fish will enjoy some collateral benefit. No-fishing areas arguably have their place in protecting aggregations of spawning snapper and grouper, or preventing parrotfish from being stripped from a coral reef.
But in this case, we’re talking about the great ocean wanderers such as bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which can and do travel across entire ocean basins, and bluefin tuna which, at the least, routinely migrate from the Gulf of Maine to Gulf of Mexico spawning grounds, and can make trans-Atlantic voyages from the Mediterranean Sea to North America and back again.
No one should pretend that shutting down fishing in a few square miles of sea is going to have any impact on the health of such stocks.
Instead, what such fishing closure can and will do is provide a wedge that rabid opponents of sound fisheries management, such as the American Sportfishing Association, can drive between responsible anglers and the conservation community.
It gives them a way to poison the waters, and successfully convince anglers that supporters of the marine monument are, at heart, “anti-fishing” and not “pro-conservation.”
No one who cares about the future health of our oceans should be willing to give them such tools, because there is far too much at stake.
Right now, there is a fight going on for the soul of the recreational salt water fisherman.
Yes, a few are just selfish slobs, but the average angler likes to think of him- or herself as a conservationist, who wants to leave his or her kids and grandkids an healthy and fish-filled ocean. The notion of not taking more fish than one can use, of catch and release and of not wantonly killing has taken real root in the salt water fishing community.
At the same time, regulations imposed to rebuild depleted stocks have led to far stricter regulations than many anglers had previously experienced, and caused more than a little discontent.
The American Sportfishing Association takes advantage of such discontent when it refers to conservationists as “anti-fishing groups, while the Recreational Fishing Alliance tells anglers that
“Anti-fishing groups and radical environmental interests are pushing an agenda on marine fisheries issues affecting America’s saltwater anglers.”
Arguing that the proposed marine monument be closed to all angling merely give anti-conservation organizations such as ASA and RFA credibility with mainstream anglers.
Such credibility will come back to haunt the conservation community, as "anglers’ rights" groups convince more and more recreational fishermen to support bad legislation that would strip federal managers of the authority to manage some stocks of fish, or weaken Magnuson-Stevens and take fisheries management back to the bad old days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 became law.
Many recreational fishermen are active supporters of the proposed marine monument. My own letter to the White House went out weeks ago. Yet if the conservation community wants to see such support in the future, on issues that are likely to have much greater import, in the overall scheme of things, than the marine monument does, it needs to remember that there are things that anglers also need.
Foremost among them is the need for healthy, abundant fish stocks, and the ability to freely access such stocks at any time and place, so long as it is biologically responsible to do so.