Thursday, February 22, 2018


With all the hype taking up the news outlets these days, whether we’re talking about the national news or things that matter mostly to fishermen, it might have been easy to miss the fact that the administration’s proposed budget slashed quite a few dollars from the NOAA Fisheries budget.

The overall budget for NOAA Fisheries is being cut by 14%.  However, law enforcement is taking a 25% hit, and all of that money would be taken out of the budget for cooperative enforcement programs; if the cuts go through as planned, there will be no federal money available for joint enforcement agreements, which funnel federal money to the states’ various environmental enforcement staffs.  If you’re a striped bass fisherman, such joint agreements, and the related federal funds, support the apprehension of poachers targeting bass in the EEZ; striped bass and many other important species will suffer, and poachers will benefit, on every coast should the program be defunded.

$17.7 million would be cut from the science and management budget, while $5 million less would be spent obtaining the data needed for stock assessments.  The proposed budget would also provide $2.9 million less for cooperative research.  The bottom line is that you might believe that our fisheries would benefit from more and better science and more and better data, but the administration apparently disagrees. 

Or doesn’t care.  Which, come to think of it, is probably more likely, but still takes us to the same place.

Of course, we don’t need science to tell us that fish need a place where they can live, feed and reproduce, or to tell us that a lot of coastal habitat has been degraded by development, polluted runoff, and the loss of coral reefs and seagrass beds.  We can hope that the administration includes folks who know that as well, but if there are such folks down in D.C., those who drafted the budget ignored them as well, since they hope to cut $4.8 million from habitat and conservation programs, thus eliminating all funding for fisheries habitat restoration projects.

And the National Sea Grant College Program, which for more than half a century has been conducting fisheries research and providing support to the fishing community, would receive no funding at all.

That makes it pretty clear that neither fisheries science, informed fisheries management nor fisheries education ranks very high on the administration’s priority list.

But perhaps you missed the news.  If you don’t live in a coastal town with a big fishing industry and a newspaper that covers fisheries issues, you may not have heard anything about it at all.

Certainly, the big sportfishing groups that have spent the past few years blasting out press releases attacking federal fisheries managers and fisheries management have not seen fit to mention the topic.

“the nation’s leading advocate for saltwater recreational anglers.  The Center organizes, focuses and engages recreational fishing stakeholders to shape federal marine fisheries management policies.”

“Recreational anglers are America’s leading conservationists,”
and that

“Anglers work to sustain healthy fish stocks and access to these public fishery resources.”
Certainly, the current budget proposals, which are a clear reflection of the administration’s federal marine fisheries policies, promote neither conservation nor healthy, sustainable fish stocks, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the Center to speak out against them.

And when you put all those things together, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Center hasn’t issued even a mild condemnation of the proposed budget cuts.  After all, this administration is willing to violate federal law in order to let recreational anglers overfish the red snapper stock.  That’s clearly the sort of thing that the Center supports, so why would they want to alienate a friend over such apparently trivial things as good science or fisheries habitat?

The websites of other Modern Fish Act supporters reveal a similar pattern. 

The American Sportfishing Association represents the fishing tackle industry.  Its website contains a lot of support for the Modern Fish Act, and praise for both the regressive H.R. 200 and Commerce’s decision to let anglers exceed their Gulf red snapper quota.  But it says nothing about the bad proposals in the administration’s budget, or the threat that such budget cuts pose to fisheries science and management efforts.

Anglers’ rights organizations take the same sort of positions, then follow up by asking their members to take political action.

“is to advise and educate the public on the conservation of marine resources.”
That is, without doubt, a worthy goal, but it’s hard to understand how supporting both the latest incarnation of the Empty Oceans Act and overfishing red snapper advances the cause. 

Perhaps the problem lies with CCA’s current understanding of the word “conservation,” for when you click on the “conservation” tab on CCA’s website, and then on “TAKE ACTION,” you’re directed to a page that asks you

“to tell your representatives in Congress to support the Modern Fish Act,”
even though the Modern Fish Act will weaken federal mangers’ ability to restrict recreational harvest and make it more likely that anglers will overfish various stocks.

It could just as easily have said “tell your representatives in Congress to restore NOAA Fisheries’ funding,” but CCA apparently decided against doing that--if they thought about it at all.

That might now be what you’d expect from a group that talks a good conservation game, but then again, most of us learned, well before we cut our first wisdom tooth, to judge a person—or an organization—not by what they say, but by what they actually do…

There is no such seeming dissonance at the Recreational Fishing Alliance, an organization that is smaller and less polished, but ideologically similar to, CCA.  RFA recently announced that

“In an effort to bring cohesion to the saltwater recreational fishing community, the RFA has launched the RED ALERT campaign.  We can no longer afford to work as individuals or splinter cells.  We have to work together and pool our resources or the days of freedom in our fisheries may well be over.
“In cooperation with our state chapter [sic] we are launching this campaign to raise money, awareness, and membership so that we can for once and for all stand up to the corrupt and unfair management practices that have plagued us for so long.  [emphasis added]”
And, like the other organizations, it never spoke out against the proposed cuts to NOAA Fisheries, even though there has been plenty of time to do so in this era of Voter Voice and Constant Contact and like applications, that allow messages and “action alerts” to be sent out to members with a minimum of delay.

Given the similarity of all the organizations’ positions, it’s not hard to believe that they all have the same motivations as well, although most of them probably realize that there could be political and public relations advantages to letting those motivations remain unsaid.

It's not hard to believe that they all want to escape the bounds of annual catch limits and stock rebuilding deadlines, and enjoy the sort of “freedom in our fisheries” that lets them overfish red snapper, or any other fish stock, should they have a mind to.  

It's easy to believe that they all feel “plagued” by, and wish to escape, the kind of “corrupt and unfair management practices” that use science and data to restrict anglers’ landings, instead of letting such landings by guided by the simple marketplace forces of scarcity and abundance, as they were before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed in 1996.

Given that, its also easy to believe that they would also be fine with the administration’s plans to cut money for data and science and, perhaps particularly, enforcement, tools that have historically been used only to restrict their “freedom” to fish without chafing rules.

The good news is that the administration budget needs to be passed by a Congress that doesn’t necessarily agree with all of its provisions.  In fact, this particular budget has strayed far enough from the norm that many people, including some well-known lawmakers, have called it “dead on arrival.”

Yet even if much in it is changed, some provisions will remain largely intact, and it is very possible that the cuts to NOAA Fisheries could be among them.

So individual anglers have their own choice to make.

They can do what the various organizations tell them to do, tell Congress to support the Modern Fish Act, and perhaps be able to kill a few more fish while they can still find enough fish to kill.

Or they can think for themselves, and think strategically.  

They can realize that without science-based management, without good data, without restored habitat and without good law enforcement, there’s going to be a time when they won’t be able to bring many fish home, regardless of what the regulations might be.  

And they can understand that, instead of asking Congress to weaken federal fisheries laws, they would be better off using their calls and letters to insist that their folks in Washington oppose cuts to NOAA Fisheries’ budget be restored, so that our fish populations can continue to be restored as well.

Because if those cuts survive, nothing else will really matter.

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