Sunday, September 25, 2016
A FAR MORE IMPORTANT FIGHT IN THE GULF
The Gulf of Mexico pops up frequently when folks talk about fisheries management, mostly because some overly hungry members of the recreational fishing community are throwing a hissy fit because the National Marine Fisheries Service isn’t letting them overfish red snapper.
It’s not as anglers are being crowded out of the fishery. The recreational sector was given a 5.75 million pound annual catch target in 2016, more than twice the combined recreational and commercial quota in 2008.
Still, groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association have spent substantial amounts of money on litigation, either bringing or intervening in lawsuits intended to hold anglers accountable for overfishing, hold states unaccountable for excessive red snapper caught in their waters while federal waters are closed and prevent allocation of a share of the harvest to recreational anglers who fish from for-hire vessels, to keep them from being harmed by private boat anglers’ overages.
Those lawsuits had very modest objectives that, in the end, probably weren’t worth the amount of money invested in the litigation (even if CCA won, which it usually didn’t). However, CCA also joined with other organizations comprising the Center for Coastal Conservation, and expended substantial resources to convince NMFS to adopt a wide-ranging recreational fishing policy, and in the words of Bill Bird, Chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee,
“the Gulf recreational red snapper fishery…is virtually the sole impetus for the creation of the policy in the first place.”
Now, CCA and the rest of the Center are working hard to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, lending their support to H.R. 1335, a bill that would do just that.
That’s a lot of money, time and effort being spent to kill a few additional fish.
It also seems to be a very careless use of such resources, given the much bigger issues facing anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, which are far more worthy of such expenditures.
Consider the Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a large expanse of the Gulf of Mexico in which the bottom waters (yes, water where red snappers might live) contains little or no oxygen. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, it is
“fueled by nutrient runoff and other human activities in the Mississippi River watershed, which stimulates an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes and consumes most of the life-giving oxygen supply in bottom waters.”
NOAA also observes that
“Despite fluctuations in size during each year’s weather conditions, these chronic, recurrent hypoxic zones every summer represent a significant threat to Gulf ecosystems. Until we achieve a substantial reduction in nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River watershed, we will continue to experience extended periods of time each year when critically needed habitat is unavailable for many marine organisms.”
The typical size of the Dead Zone is around 6,700 square miles, about the same area as the entire State of New Jersey, although spring floods that wash higher-than-normal amounts of pollutants down the Mississippi River can cause it to grow much larger.
Given that such a threat to marine resources important to anglers exists right in their back yard, one would think that the Texas-based Coastal Conservation Association and Louisiana-based Center for Coastal Conservation would spend at least as many resources fighting to reduce the extent of the Dead Zone as they do fighting to kill more red snapper.
However, that does not appear to be the case.
A fairly deep Google search revealed that neither CCA nor the Center has apparently made a strong commitment to reduce the size of the Dead Zone, and that neither organization has dedicated substantial resources to that cause. Instead, both groups seem to be concentrating their efforts on increasing red snapper harvest, weakening federal fisheries laws and various other causes that would maintain or increase recreational harvest levels for various species, while protecting the short-term income stream of the angling and boating industries.
Certainly, any fight to significantly shrink the Dead Zone would cause CCA and the Center to take on far more, and far better funded, opponents than those they face in their red snapper fight. On the other hand, the fact that the combined resources of CCA, the American Sportfishing Association (representing the fishing tackle industry) and the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, to name just three component organizations of the Center, can’t make much progress on the red snapper issue is probably more testimony to how weak and out-on-the-fringe their position actually is, than any reflection on their willingness or ability to win a more rational debate.
It would be extremely tough for CCA and the Center to prevail in a fight over the Dead Zone, but at least they would have the facts and the equities of the situation strongly on their side, which is a lot more than they have now.
A recent battle over pollution in Chesapeake Bay, which also suffers from hypoxic dead zones during the summer, provides a good idea of how the battle lines would be drawn in a Dead Zone fight.
In that battle, the United States Environmental Protections Agency issued, in 2010, regulations that specified the “total maximum daily load” of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that could be released into Chesapeake Bay. Such regulations were immediately challenged by a group of business interests that included the American Farm Bureau Association, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau Association, The Fertilizer Institute, the National Chicken Council, the US Poultry and Egg Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Turkey Federation and the Association of Homebuilders—in other words, a lot of the same organizations that represent the people and businesses that helped to create the Dead Zone in the Gulf (as an aside, the good guys--and Chesapeake Bay--won).
But what was really interesting was who intervened on the side of the Farm Bureau—the attorneys general representing various states that included, among others, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia, all of which abut either the Mississippi River or one of its tributaries, who went to court to defend their citizens’ God-given rights to dump excess fertilizer and pig shit in such waterways.
They clearly feared that if the flow of agricultural waste into Chesapeake Bay could be limited, the flow into the Gulf of Mexico might be limited as well.
Thirty-nine congressmen from the pig shit and fertilizer states also intervened on the side of the Farm Bureau. Of those thirty-nine, half a dozen have been actively supported by the Center for Coastal Conservation’s political action committee in at least one of the past three election cycles, including Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina), John Fleming (R-Louisiana), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Andrew Harris (R-Maryland), Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) and (now-Senator) David Vitter (R-Louisiana).
One can only assume that the Center believes that it may need their help to trash federal fisheries law.
So yes, it’s easy to understand why the Center might not want to get involved in a Dead Zone fight, and risk letting some of its past campaign contributions go to waste.
And that’s too bad.
Because if a coalition of anglers, the tackle industry and the boatbuilders ever grew the cojones to stand up against the people and businesses that profit by letting fertilizer and shit flow into America’s rivers and choke out life in the Gulf, it would be a powerful coalition, particularly if the Center also had the moral courage to put past disputes behind it and link its efforts with those of mainstream conservation groups, and other sportsmen’s groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, who are already in the fight.
There is a chance that, after hard effort, they might even win, and such a victory would be far more valuable to all anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, whatever they choose to fish for, than a few more red snapper tossed, dead, on the dock.
In the long run, it would be more valuable to the tackle and boatbuilding industries, too.
But to get to that point, the Center would first have to dare to do something greater than merely carping over a dead snapper or two.
So far, it hasn't proven itself capable of that.