Thursday, July 20, 2017
WEDNESDAY IN WASHINGTON
In case no one ever mentioned it to you, Washington, D.C. is hot in July.
It’s the kind of heat that makes sweat bead up into half-inch-wide pools on the back of your hands, and turns the knot in your necktie into a wet, spongy mass by the time you’ve walked from the railroad station into a waiting cab.
But it’s Washington, after all, the crowded, bustling, confusing city that, more than anywhere else, truly sits at the center of the world.
To me, as I’ve written before, it’s a sacred place, arcane and almost mystical, where someone like myself—not one of the power brokers, not an industry leader or the head of some powerful clique—can still sit down in a room with some of the handful of folks who decide the destiny of nations, and expect to be heard.
I’ve been coming down to Washington at least once each year for a while now, to speak to Congressional staff about fisheries issues, mostly about the importance of maintaining the conservation and management provisions that have made the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Act the most comprehensive and more effective law of its kind in the world.
Yesterday, though, was a little different.
I wouldn’t just be meeting with staff. Instead, I would be one of four witnesses appearing before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, at an oversight hearing called to look into the successes achieved and challenges posed by Magnuson-Stevens, held as an early step in the process of reauthorizing that federal fisheries law.
I had never done that before.
I had been invited to speak by the minority party’s staff; the other three witnesses were invited by the majority, which meant that I was probably going to be the only one at the table who would speak in support of the law. That was OK, although I had to admit that I watch a lot of CNN, had seen my share of various committee hearings, and knew that the guy with the disfavored position does, on occasion, get worked over pretty hard.
So while I was pretty confident about what I knew, I’ll admit to a kind of pre-battle jitters, and it didn’t help when the hearing was delayed for a half-hour to accommodate a vote on the floor. That’s when you stop and start thinking about what could go wrong.
But the nice thing about pre-battle jitters is that they quickly disperse when the first shot is fired, and action takes over your mind. Although the truth is that there were no real shots and nothing much to be jittery about; the Congressmen in the room were all respectful of everyone (although they sparred a bit among themselves), a couple of those who disagreed with me asked pointed, but reasonable questions (one revealing that he has read this blog), and everything ended on a handshake and kind words in the hall with one of the legislators who had disagreed with at least one of my positions.
To be honest, the whole thing had been fun.
It had also been a learning experience, because it was clear where some of the folks who want to change Magnuson-Stevens are going astray. One of the big misconceptions was that proponents of federal fisheries management doubt the competence of state fishery biologists and state fishery managers.
In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Readers of this blog know that I’ll often thank fishery managers here in New York for standing up and trying to do the right thing; I know a number of our state biologists, and they are, without exception a dedicated, hard-working bunch of professionals. I have told people on a number of occasions that I’m proud of our folks in New York’s Marine Division, and I’ll say the same thing here and now.
For the most part, it’s not the state fisheries managers that are flawed, but the state fishery management process.
In the federal fisheries management process, there are strict legal guidelines. Overfishing must not be permitted. Stocks must be rebuilt promptly, by a strictly defined deadline. The best available science must guide management.
If a federal bureaucrat decides to permit overfishing, or to unnecessarily extend a rebuilding period, that bureaucrat is likely to get sued. Anyone who has any doubts about that just needs to look at Commerce Secretary Ross’ patently illegal extension of the private-boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, and then at the conservation community’s quick and appropriate response.
On the other hand, state bureaucrats are subject to no such guidelines. After the last peer-reviewed striped bass benchmark stock assessment was released, which required fishing mortality to be reduced by 25%, there was actually a nearly year-long debate as to whether to accept it as the best available science.
At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board’s October 2014 meeting, some state managers actually voted against doing so. And the same states then made a concerted effort to convince the Management Board to ignore the explicit language of the striped bass management plan, which required fishing mortality to be reduced to target levels within one year, instead arguing that a 3-year phase-in was OK (another trigger in the management plan was tripped, which required the Management Board to prepare a plan to rebuild the stock within 10 years, but that requirement was completely ignored by everyone).
Although such states ultimately lost both votes, they clearly illustrate what can happen when state bureaucrats are allowed to interfere with decisions that should be based purely on science.
Other state actions, of course, can be even less benign.
Without firm and legally-enforceable guidelines, various industry organizations, or just well-connected individuals who have an interest in the management of a species, can reach out to state officials, and convince them to adopt a fishery management policy contrary to scientific advice, solely for economic or political reasons.
The resource can only suffer when such events occur, yet there is no legal bar to prevent the states from taking such actions.
That point was repeatedly overlooked at yesterday’s hearing. While state science can be very good; state policy is a very different matter, and it can change with the political winds. That makes such policy a significant threat to healthy fish stocks.
Funding was also an issue that came up yesterday.
Critics of federal management often point to what they consider to be bad harvest data and inadequate scientific information being used to manage the fish, and no one should argue with the fact that better data would lead to better management actions.
Logically, the focus such critics should be seeking higher levels of funding for the National Marine Fisheries Service and its regional science centers, not amending the current rebuilding provisions to weaken the law. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the questions about higher levels of funding came not from the majority members, who support H.R. 200, but from Ranking Member on the minority side.
What was surprising is that not every witness endorsed the idea. One, a fishery manager from the State of Florida who was supporting an agenda remarkably similar to the one being pushed by the Coastal Conservation Association and other members of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, expressed only limited support on additional funding, making his support contingent on what issues such funding addressed. I found that somewhat curious, as resolving any of the many pending issues would provide at least some additional clarity to fisheries managers, and could not do any harm.
Some other issues were addressed at some point in the day—marine monuments, climate change, the National Environmental Policy Act, among others—but the recreational issues tended to dominate the conversation.
And then it was over.
Although the hearing lasted for close to two hours, it seemed to last for less than half of that time. As I stepped away from the witness table, I felt as if I accomplished my job as an advocate for the proper conservation and management of fish stocks. I walked away with respect for the members present, who discharged their responsibilities in a decorous and professional way, even when they disagreed with a particular witness (which was, at times, me).
In short, it was an honor to be there, presenting my opinions and beliefs to the people who, in the end, will make the call on whether our fisheries managers are allowed to look forward, into the future, or be dragged back toward the bad old days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was signed into law.
It was also a deeply appreciated privilege, and I thank the members and staff who invited me there.