Thursday, November 10, 2016
ASSESSING THE ELECTION
Just last Sunday, I posted a piece speculating on this year’s election, and how it might affect fisheries conservation efforts. Now, with the big day behind us, the future is clearer, and it looks very bad.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being much worse.
This nation has chosen an aging, tower-dwelling Manhattanite with a strange, orange-hued tan that comes from inside a bottle, and not from the rays of the sun. Unlike so many presidents of the past century, from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush, Donald Trump is neither an angler nor any other kind of outdoorsman, and seems to feel no kinship with either the earth or the sea.
He is, however, the President-elect of the United States.
CNN has reported that Mr. Trump’s transition teams were
“set to parachute into government agencies, get the lay of the land, begin the transition process and get Trump’s 100-day plan rolling.
“The transition plan was delivered to Trump Tower Tuesday. In particular, aides have focused on what Trump can do unilaterally, such as rolling back regulations.”
Anyone who has followed Mr. Trump’s campaign will know that he holds regulations intended to protect America’s air, water and natural resources in particular contempt, a fact demonstrated by his choice of Myron Ebell, one of the most infamous “climate change skeptics,” to head the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.
There is no reason to believe that regulations affecting the health of marine fisheries will receive any more sympathetic treatment.
Mr. Trump’s anti-conservation, pro-exploitation message echoes the 2016 Republican platform, which includes a plank stating
“We are the party of America’s growers, producers, farmers, ranchers, foresters, miners, commercial fishermen, and all those who bring from the earth the crops, minerals, energy and the bounties of our seas that are the lifeblood of our economy. Their labor and ingenuity, their determination in bad times and love of the land at all times, powers our economy, creates millions of jobs, and feeds billions of people around the world. Only a few years ago, a bipartisan consensus in government valued the role of extractive industries and rewarded their enterprise by minimizing its interference with their work. That has radically changed. We look in vain within the Democratic Party for leaders who will speak for the people of agriculture, energy and mineral production. [emphasis added]“
It will also play well with the slash-and-burn majority on the House Natural Resources Committee, which approved H.R. 1335, the so-called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which is intended to gut key stock rebuilding and conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.
H.R. 1335 was ultimately passed by the House, and there is little doubt that the next Congress, where such majority members continue to hold sway, will quickly consider and pass a similar piece of legislation next year. There is also little doubt that, should such bill make it through the Senate, it will be quickly and cheerfully signed by Mr. Trump, an event that would set American marine fish stocks back twenty years, to the days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was signed into law.
It’s not hard to imagine the upcoming Congress cutting the National Marine Fisheries Service’s funding, although that is merely speculation at this time.
Efforts to emasculate Magnuson-Stevens, if successful, would strike a dire enough blow to America’s fisheries, but in the upcoming few years, we’ll doubtless see worse.
Fish obviously live in the water, and many important recreational species, including striped bass, steelhead and the various salmon, ascend rivers to spawn and spend the earliest part of their lives. In the case of salmon and steelhead, critical spawning areas often extend to the uppermost headwaters of rivers. Under the new administration, clean water regulations will most assuredly be repealed, leaving already stressed runs of fish vulnerable to further depletion and, in the case of a number of salmon and steelhead runs, even extinction.
To again quote the Republican platform,
“The [Environmental Protection Agency’s] Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule…is a travesty. It extends the government’s jurisdiction over navigable waters into the micro-management of puddles and ditches on farms, ranches, and other privately-held property. Ditches, dry creek beds, stock ponds, prairie potholes, and non-navigable wet areas are already regulated by the states…We must never allow federal agencies to seize control of state waters, watersheds, or groundwater. State waters, watersheds, and groundwater must be the purview of the sovereign states.”
Such language bodes ill for anadromous fish dependent on tributary brooks for their spawning and ultimate survival (and, although this is not a hunting blog, for ducks who depend on the prairie potholes of the Midwestern “duck factory” for most of their nesting). It suggests that other rules, such as that which set the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load of nitrates, phosphates and other pollutants that threaten striped bass spawning and nursery grounds, could be repealed.
And yet, again, that is not all of the damage that we could see done over the next few years, as the platform goes on to say
“The government at every level must always pay just compensation whenever it takes private property to achieve a compelling public use, with the money coming from the budget of the agency performing the taking. This includes the taking of water rights and the taking of property by environmental regulations that destroy or diminish the property’s value.”
Since its unlikely that Congress is going to give lavish funding to either the Environmental Protection Agency or the Fish & Wildlife Service, if the platform’s goals are enacted, a plethora of environmental and conservation regulations would become effectively unenforceable. That would hit steelhead and salmon particularly hard, because in the west, they compete with ranchers and farmers for water that has grown ever more scarce due to climate change.
Consider the case of the San Joaquin/Sacramento River drainage, where one run of Chinook salmon is endangered, and one run of Chinook and one run of steelhead trout (along with a distinct population of green sturgeon) are deemed to be threatened .
At the request of the Department of the Interior, the National Marine Fisheries Service reviewed the operations of two huge water projects that pump enough water out of the rivers to serve 25 million customers, to determine how such pumping effects the runs of threatened and endangered fish. NMFS found that such pumping jeopardized such species, and ordered that the projects adjust their operations in order to protect the salmon and steelhead.
In response, ten water districts and similar entities sued, leading to a federal appellate court decision that upheld NMFS action and included the memorable words
“People need water, but so do fish.”
Thus, some critically depleted runs of salmon and steelhead were given a chance to survive.
But if the Republican platform is fully implemented, the fish would only become more endangered, for NMFS would never be able to afford to pay “just compensation” for leaving water in the streambeds where it flowed for millennia, and supported lush salmon runs, before the projects were built.
And that platform would extend little hope to such endangered salmon runs, for it provides that
“the Endangered Species Act (ESA) not include species…if these species exist elsewhere in healthy numbers in another state or country.”
Which means that a good run of Chinook or steelhead up in Alaska, or maybe in Canada, would justify allowing the fish to disappear completely from the waters of Washington, Oregon and California. On the east coast, the last Atlantic salmon could be extirpated from Maine because fish still ran up rivers in Norway and Iceland.
Even in cases where the Act clearly applied, according to the platform
“The ESA should assure that the listing of endangered species and the designation of critical habitats…balance the protection of endangered species with the costs of compliance and the rights of property owners. Instead, over the last few decades, the ESA has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, [and] burdened landowners…”
It’s pretty clear where steelhead or salmon would stand in the order of things, when dollars are on the line…
And if folks on most of the east coast figure they’d be largely safe since, other than Maine, they don’t host any salmon, they ought to start thinking about the effects of drilling for gas and oil right off their shores.
Last spring, President Obama banned drilling off the Atlantic coast, but the Republican majority’s platform provides that
“Planning for our energy future requires us to first determine what resources we have in reserve…That is why we support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production.”
Should those plans be realized, East Coast anglers can look forward to seismic testing taking place on the tilefish grounds of the northeast canyons, and in the deep waters where swordfish hunt in the daytime, before they rise to the glow of our lightsticks at night.
No matter how “responsible” production efforts may be, accidents happen, and experience tells us that surfcasters at places like Hatteras, Long Beach Island and Montauk may one day find beaches fouled, as wells fail and gush oil into the sea.
It’s impossible to say how much of the majority party’s platform will be enacted. Although the House has demonstrated its eagerness to exploit natural resources regardless of the ultimate cost, the Senate has been more moderate. That has certainly been the case with fisheries issues, where the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), steered a responsible course in the current session and, unlike the House, did not seek to weaken Magnuson-Stevens.
The Senate also offers the possibility of filibustering particularly heinous efforts to weaken federal conservation laws. Under current rules, 60 votes are necessary to assure passage of any Senate legislation, and with the number of Democratic seats increasing to at least 48, there is hope that a filibuster will prevent the worst bills from being signed into law.
Even so, things look pretty bleak. Angling organizations such as the Coastal Conservation Association and American Sportfishing Association, which were effective stewards of the resource just a decade ago, are now seeking to weaken federal fisheries laws.
Perhaps William Butler Yeats put it best, in The Second Coming.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are filled with a passionate intensity.
“…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward [Washington] to be born?”