Thursday, March 2, 2017


Wilbur J. Ross, Jr. has been confirmed as the new Secretary of Commerce, and so is now the head of the agency that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its subsidiary, the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Thus, anyone concerned with fisheries management is looking through Secretary Ross’ past comments, to see whether he has said anything that might suggest what his approach to fisheries issues might be.

Yesterday, he introduced himself to the people who work for the Department of Commerce.  His speech was necessarily broad, and included a list of “challenges” that the department must meet, including

“obtaining maximum sustainable yield for our fisheries.”
That was the only time that fish were mentioned in the speech, and it doesn’t tell us too much about how the new Secretary of Commerce views fisheries management. 
Optimists might argue—or at least hope—that the statement implies an intent to build depleted fisheries back to the point where they are capable of producing their maximum sustainable yield.   They may also see good news in Secretary Ross’ comment that

“One of the first steps in supporting these efforts will be securing adequate appropriations from the Congress,”
as inadequate funding has always been one of NMFS’ biggest problems.

Pessimists will see the reference to maximum sustainable yield as evidence of an intent to elevate harvest and immediate economic gain over the sort of precautionary management that better assures the long-term health of fish stocks and the ecosystems which support them.  They will argue that a recent article in Politico, which said that Secretary Ross has

“already singled out a surprising pet project:  Reducing America’s reliance on seafood imports,”
is further evidence that harvest will probably be increased beyond scientifically supportable levels.

Yet, despite people’s inevitable tendency to draw snap conclusions, about the only thing that anyone can be sure of is that the Department of Commerce, and by extension NOAA and NMFS, is going to undergo change.  Exactly what that change will ultimately look like remains to be seen.
Politico quotes Secretary Ross as saying

“Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter.”
That certainly should cause conservationists some concern.
But what does it really mean?

Secretary Ross is a well-educated man, having earned an undergraduate degree from Yale and an M.B.A. from Harvard.  He earned his billions the hard way, identifying opportunities offered by financially troubled companies that, with hard work and good management, could be made profitable again.  Though he is not a scientist, his success in reviving bankrupt companies  suggests that he appreciates the need for good data and careful analysis.

That could be a good thing.

While he “would like to try” to increase the country’s fish landings, we can hope that once he learns that most fish stocks are already being harvested at or above optimum levels, he will realize that the only way to increase landings in the long term will be to fully rebuild currently depleted populations.  We can hope that a person astute enough to see the long-term potential in bankrupt and supposedly doomed corporations will also see see the long-term benefits of rebuilding depleted fish stocks and keeping healthy stocks from falling into the sort of decline that will impair their economic potential.

Sure, that may be just wishful thinking, but whether Secretary Ross ultimately turns out to be a successful or a failed steward of America’s marine resources may depend, in large part, on whether the advocates for sound fisheries management can gain access to him, and whether they can make a convincing argument that healthy, rebuilt fish stocks ultimately provide greater commercial benefits to the nation than do stocks that are fished on a boom-and-bust basis. 
Representatives from the slash-and-burn side of the ledger are already making their feelings known. 

An article that appeared on The Fisherman Magazine’s website shortly after the Senate confirmed Secretary Ross’ appointment bore the title “A New Fisheries Sheriff Comes to Town”.  Its author observed that

“The ongoing fluke fiasco took a critical turn on Monday night when the U.S. Senate confirmed Wilbur L. Ross as the nation’s new Secretary of Commerce…
“the confirmation of Ross as Commerce Secretary should represent a transition in federal fisheries management under the Trump administration and opens the next chapter in the 2017 fight for summer flounder…
“New Jersey governor Chris Christie has been defiantly hoping to gain Secretary Ross’s support for status quo measures which would leave the 2016 limits in place for another season until new data could be integrated into the NOAA Fisheries decision-making, and thus far refusing to accept the ASMFC vote [to reduce the bag limit from 5 fluke to 3 and increase the minimum size from 18 to 19 inches].”
At this point, no one (or at least no one willing to speak on the record) knows whether Secretary Ross would be inclined to ignore the scientific advice and carry 2016 summer flounder regulations over for the duration of the 2017 season.  If he did so, the action would be patently illegal, and a violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s mandate to avoid overfishing and use the best scientific information available when managing fisheries. 

Maintaining status quo regulations for 2017 could also drive summer flounder abundance below the threshold that defines an overfished stock, and trigger requirements to initiate a new rebuilding plan, an action that could lead to regulations far more onerous than those proposed for the upcoming season.

However, such prospects don’t daunt the most rabid opponents of science-based fisheries management.   The same Fisherman article quotes Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fisheries Alliance, who declared that

“A great place to start draining some of that swamp is down in Maryland at Silver Spring [where NMFS’ headquarters is located].  The ideological appointments of our last president, flooding NOAA Fisheries for eight years with anti-fishing policies, it was bad for fishing, and just shows the need for a major housecleaning this spring.”
It’s clear that Donofrio would like to see Secretary Ross replace NMFS employees who believe in science and healthy fish stocks with folks who share more of a rape-and-pillage mentality.

And that may very well happen.

But then again, maybe it won’t.

If Secretary Ross has made anything clear, it’s that he intends to run a Department of Commerce that benefits American business.  And the fishing business, whether recreational or commercial, does a lot better when folks can catch fish.

An empty ocean benefits no one.

While restrictions needed to rebuild some fish stocks can curb income for a few years, in the end, abundant fish stocks put more money in everyone’s pockets, while regulations that allow boom-and-bust fishing end up hurting the industry in the end.

If anyone wants a good example of that, they only need to turn to the recreational winter flounder fishery here in New York.  Until the late 1980s, Great South Bay hosted a vital flounder fishery that supported a large fleets of private and for-hire boats.  Action would begin early in March, and really get going by St. Patrick’s Day, the unofficial start of the season.  When the fishery peaked in late April, the weekend bay would be clogged with boats that lined the channels and spread out over the flats, each one filling up buckets with flounder.

Not too much later, the stocks showed signs of decline, but the recreational fishing industry fought against meaningful restrictions, resulting in regulations that were always too little and too late to reverse the decline and allow the stock to rebuild—the very sort of regulations that some people would now like to see adopted for summer flounder.

Now, fishing can’t legally begin until April 1, and lasts for only 60 days.  During most of that time, anglers consider themselves lucky if they can catch a 2-fish limit of winter flounder.  Waters that were once filled with boats are now nearly empty; April sees only a few scattered anglers seeking the last remnants of the flounder population.  Party boats that once had anglers standing elbow to elbow along their rails now sail with skeleton crowds that often barely cover their expenses.  Many boats have so few customers that they don’t sail at all.

In the end, the customers follow the fish, and when the fish disappear, the customers vanish as well.

That’s the message that Secretary Ross needs to hear.  

The big conservation groups, as well as individual anglers hoping that there will be a few fish left for their kids and their grandkids to catch, need to let him know that healthy fishing businesses, whether recreational or commercial, require healthy fish populations.  He needs to understand that overly large harvests today mean little or no harvest tomorrow.

For Secretary Ross is, in the end, a businessman, who should and hopefully will understand that no business can thrive unless it has something to sell.

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