Sunday, March 19, 2017


The White House has recently released its budget outline for the next fiscal year.  Titled America First:  A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, it charts a very different course than budgets proposed by other recent administrations.  

Whatever such budget proposal would do for, or to, other federal programs, it bodes ill for saltwater fish stocks and the fishermen who seek them.

To be fair, the budget outline calls fisheries management a “core function” of the Department of Commerce, and states that the Administration’s budget

“prioritizes and protects investments in core Government functions [and]…supporting the Government’s role in managing marine resources.”
We can only hope that will turn out to be true, and that the Administration’s approach to managing marine resources will emphasize long-term sustainability over short-term gain and long-term depletion.  However, particulars that appear in various sections of the budget outline give cause for concern.

In the northeast and throughout most of the Mid-Atlantic, one of the greatest concerns relates to the complete elimination of federal funding for efforts to improve water quality in ecologically-important regions such as Chesapeake Bay, where 70% and 90% of the Atlantic coast’s migratory striped bass are spawned each year. 

The Administration justifies such cuts my saying

“The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing [the Environmental Protection Agency] to focus on its highest national priorities.”
Such a position ignores the fact that water bodies such as Chesapeake Bay are merely a portion of far larger systems, in which water is first collected in small tributary streams, flows into larger rivers which are themselves tributary to major waterways that eventually flow into coastal bays.  Pollution can and is introduced into the water at any point along its journey, and often crosses state boundaries before it flows into salt water.

Consider how the potential affect on striped bass spawning in Chesapeake Bay.

“Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] Office of Civil Enforcement, said the federal agency’s enforcement authority plays a crucial role in negotiations among the six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, particularly those like Pennsylvania that contributes a significant portion of the agricultural pollution but lack bay frontage.”
Absent federal involvement in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, it could become very difficult for the states of Maryland and Virginia, where the striped bass spawning rivers are located, to prevent Pennsylvania farmers from allowing pollutants, whether in the form of pesticides, fertilizers or livestock waste, to run off into waters that will eventually flow into and degrade the bay.

“Larval striped bass are…very susceptible to toxic pollutants like arsenic, copper, cadmium, aluminum and malathion, a common pesticide.  Studies showed that chlorination of effluent from sewage plants and electric power stations adversely affect zooplankton, leading to starvation of newly hatched striped bass that feed on it.”

“A 10-year study of Chesapeake Bay fishes by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science provides the first quantitative evidence on a bay-wide that low-oxygen “dead zones” are impacting the distribution and abundance of ‘demersal’ fishes—those that live and feed near the Bay bottom.
“The affected species—which include Atlantic croaker, white perch, spot, striped bass, and summer flounder—are a key part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and support important commercial and recreational fisheries…
“Low-oxygen conditions—what scientists call ‘hypoxia’—form when excess loads of nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage, and other sources feed algae blooms in coastal waters.  When these algae die and sink, they provide a rich food source for bacteria, which in the act of decomposition take up dissolved oxygen from nearby waters.”
Thus, the proposed budget’s defunding of the Chesapeake Bay program would create a double-barreled threat to striped bass.  It would take away the EPA’s ongoing enforcement effort, making it easier for out-of-state polluters to degrade water quality, and it would remove money available to clean up pollution sources.  That clean-up money is critical, for as the Richmond Times-Dispatch also noted,

“Since 1983, the [Environmental Protection Agency] has been the lead federal partner to work to reduce agricultural and other pollution in the bay, a relationship that has achieved resurgent clam and oyster populations, renewed growth of the underwater grasses that shelter them, and decreased ‘dead zones,’ or areas of oxygen-deficient water.  About two-thirds of the federal funding goes to direct pollution-reduction grants to farmers and municipalities.  The rest goes to monitoring the bay’s water quality.”
And anything that degrades Chesapeake Bay’s ability to produce and sustain healthy year classes of juvenile striped bass will also degrade the commercial and recreational striped bass fishery in every state between Maine and North Carolina.

Up in New England, striped bass aren’t the only important species threatened by the proposed budget.

“Since 2004 the [Gulf of Maine] has warmed faster than anyplace else on the planet, except for an area northeast of Japan, and during the ‘Northwest Atlantic Ocean heat wave’ of 2012 average water temperatures hit the highest level in the 150 years that humans have been recording them.
“As a result, many native species—boreal and subarctic creatures at the southern edges of their ranges—are in retreat.  Lobster populations have been shifting northward and out to sea along our coast as they’ve abandoned Long Island Sound almost entirely.  Many of other commercially important bottom dwelling fish—including cod, pollock and winter flounder—have been withdrawing from Maine and into the southwestern part of the gulf, where the bottom water is cooler.”

“A team of marine scientists found that rising temperatures in the [Gulf of Maine] decreased reproduction and increased mortality among the once-plentiful Atlantic cod, adding to the toll of many decades of overfishing…
“[The scientists] speculate that the warmer waters might result in young cod starving from a lack of prey or dying from increased exposure to predators before they reached maturity.  The cod, they say, might move from shallow to deeper waters where more predators lurk, and earlier seasons might extend predation.  The researchers also report a link between temperatures and mortality in adult fish, though some other scientists question that finding.”
Yet, despite the clear connection between rising water temperatures and the abundance of fish stocks, the proposed Administration budget would do away with funding related to climate change.  Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, baldly stated that

“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward.  We’re not spending money on that anymore.  We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.  So that is a specific tie to his campaign.”
New England fishermen, who are watching ocean ecosystems mutate before their eyes, might not agree that investigating the impacts of climate change is “a waste of your money,” but it’s not clear that anyone cares about their opinion.

But at least there is research suggesting a connection between cod an climate change, and between striped bass and pollution.  The Administration’s proposed budget would also eliminate funding for important fisheries research, so we not even be aware of what we don’t know.  The budget outline notes that the Administration’s budget

“Zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant, which primarily benefit State and local stakeholders.”

Fishermen may often overlook the value of Sea Grant programs, and I admit to being a sometime critic of Sea Grant researchers being too focused on the desires of the fishing industry, and not focused enough on doing independent research.  But I’ll also admit that Sea Grant researchers here in New York have done valuable work that affected both the recreational and commercial fisheries.

During the 1990s, Sea Grant biologist Mark Malchoff did extensive work to determine the survival of fish released by recreational anglers; his study on the survival of released summer flounder led to a substantial reduction in the estimate of discard mortality, and thus let anglers enjoy more liberal recreational fishing regulations.  He also helped to prepare information that was distributed to anglers, telling them how to better assure the survival of fish that they released.

Such research, impacting fisheries on every coast, will be lost if the proposed budget’s cut to Sea Grant funding is made.

Regulators would thus lose a source of information that is important to the regulatory process; however, the regulatory process itself has little value unless regulations are enforced.  The proposed budget would hinder enforcement as well.

Yet if planned cuts to the Coast Guard budget go through, enforcement would be compromised.

According to the New York Times, the Administration intends to slash 14% from the Coast Guard’s budget in order to pay for its much-ballyhooed border wall and increased immigration enforcement.  

Any reduction in Coast Guard patrol capabilities would, ironically, make it harder for the agency to intercept Mexican lanchas that sneak into American waters of the Gulf of Mexico to poach the already fully-utilized red snapper, protect striped bass in federal waters from illegal harvest and conduct other fishery enforcement efforts.

And we need to remember that the Coast Guard doesn’t just protect fish; it protects fishermen, too.  I’ve spent decades running to offshore shark and tuna grounds, and often found myself taking my boat to the edge of the continental shelf, many miles and many hours from shore.  

When you’re out there, no matter how well you prepare, anything can happen (a few years ago, someone I know was running along the East Wall of Hudson Canyon, about 80 miles from port on a dead-calm and seemingly empty sea, when a fin whale surfaced beneath his boat, lifting it from the water and completely destroying his running gear, but fortunately leaving the vessel water-tight).  There is something very reassuring in knowing that the Coast Guard is standing by in case of emergency, ready to respond to the first signal from an emergency beacon.

Should the proposed budget go through in its current form, some of that reassurance will no longer be there.

The good news is that there is virtually no chance that the Administration budget will make it through Congress unscathed.  As the Seattle Times recently observed,

“Presidential budgets rarely get approved.”
It’s far easier for a president to propose budget cuts than it is for a member of Congress to approve them, as each of those cuts—to the Chesapeake Bay programs, to Sea Grant, to the Coast Guard—affects real people in districts that those members of Congress represent.  Constituents’ opinions matter.

And, as a practical matter, it will take 60 votes to pass a budget in the Senate, where 48 Democrats, and hopefully some Republicans, won’t easily be convinced that climate change spending is “a waste of your money.”

The Administration’s proposed budget is the first step in a long process of negotiation with Congress, which will try to strike a balance between President, party and constituents.  

Striking that balance is a hard thing to do.

Our job is to make it harder, and to let our Representatives and Senators know that portions of the proposed budget are bad for the fish, and bad for us.  And that we would be very upset if those bad proposals somehow became law.

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