Sunday, March 11, 2018
CONSERVATIONISTS DON'T OVERFISH
One of the most sadly amusing aspects of the current debate over managing federal fisheries is that the folks who are trying the hardest to wrap themselves up in the flag of conservation are members of the same coalition of fishing tackle industry, marine trades, and anglers’ rights organizations who are trying to weaken the conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
It started in the very beginning of the campaign to weaken Magnuson-Stevens. A report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Recreational Saltwater Fisheries,” issued by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, that served as a manifesto for the industry/anglers’ rights coalition, opens by saying
“America’s sportsmen and women are the backbone of aquatic resource conservation. For the past several decades, anglers have played a leading role in helping to rebuild marine fish stocks and prevent overfishing. This is a success story of which we should all be proud.”
After thus setting the stage, and invoking the term “conservation” no less than nineteen times, the report makes its recommendations—which include freeing recreational fishermen from the strictures of annual catch limits designed to prevent overfishing, and delaying the rebuilding of overfished stocks.
It’s the sort of thing that almost makes you wonder whether the folks who wrote the report’s introductory language had any idea of what its recommendations were going to be. Or whether they were merely engaged in a vaudeville magicians’ game of focusing everyone’s attention on their glamorous assistant—in this case, the image of the angler/conservationist—so that no one notices what’s really happening elsewhere on stage…
That report came out about four years ago, and the people behind it have only doubled down since then.
All of those organizations have gotten behind a piece of legislation called the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act, designated S. 1520 in the Senate and H.R. 2023 in the House of Representatives, which they usually refer to as the “Modern Fish Act.” Such bill, as originally written, would amend Magnuson-Stevens in accord with the recommendation of the “Vision” report, and so weaken the law’s prohibition on overfishing and its requirement to promptly rebuild overfished stocks.
The Center for Sportfishing Policy, an umbrella organization that includes most of the recreational and boatbuilding groups trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens among its members, stated in a press release that
“In 2014, the Morris-Deal Commission [which was established and peopled by Center for Sportfishing Policy members] released ‘A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which included six key policy changes to expand saltwater recreational fishing’s social, economic and conservation benefits to the nation.
“Many recommendations of the Morris-Deal Commission are addressed by [S. 1520]. [emphasis added]”
While the Center for Sportfishing Policy, like the “Vision” report, at least gives lip service to conservation, the quotes of some of its members, in the same press release, provide a real look at what is motivating support for the legislation.
Mike Nussman, president and chief executive officer of the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, noted that action on the Modern Fish Act
“is evidence that Congress recognizes the economic and social impact that saltwater recreational fishing has on the nation. There are 11 million saltwater recreational anglers in the U.S. who have a $63 billion economic impact annually and generate 440,000 jobs…”
No mention of conservation there; he could have as easily been talking about strip mining or building beachfront resorts.
And Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, hailed the bill because
“For too long, the federal fisheries management system has limited access for America’s recreational anglers and boaters due to faulty data and misguided regulations, which in turn has jeopardized the economic vitality of the recreational boating industry. On behalf of the estimated 650,000 workers the recreational boating industry supports, we are eager to continue working with our allies in both chambers of Congress to get this important legislation to the president’s desk.”
Dammrich’s language isn’t all that different from the language that coal companies used to attack regulations that prevented them from dumping mine waste into free-flowing streams, or that the electric power industry used to attack rules limiting the amount of toxic metals they could release into the environment as a result of their operations. Conservation is not even mentioned, although the reference to “misguided regulations” could easily be interpreted as a criticism of at least some conservation efforts.
To be fair, Patrick Murray, president of the Coastal Conservation Association, the largest anglers’ rights group supporting the bill, did say that S. 1520 would
“advance a common-sense policy that remains true to our conservation goals.”
However, Murray also noted that such bill would do so
“while promoting access to our nation’s healthy natural resources.”
Given that the only thing now preventing such “access” to fishery resources are the annual catch limits that help to prevent overfishing and the restrictions needed to restore overfished stocks—provisions that both the “Vision” report and the Modern Fish Act would weaken or remove from the law—talking about “conservation” out of one side of one’s mouth while praising the weakening of conservation measures out of the other seems like a strange thing for the president of any organization with “conservation” in its name to do.
What’s even stranger is that a purported supporter of conservation would support H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, a much more comprehensive Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that not only incorporates many Modern Fish Act provisions, but would also do far more violence to core conservation provisions of federal law that have helped to completely restore 44 once-overfished stocks since the year 2000, and have ended overfishing in many others.
H.R. 200 is so bad that mainstream conservation organizations have called it “another ‘Empty Oceans Act,’” yet not only Murray’s Coastal Conservation Association, but the entire Center for Sportfishing Policy cabal, is staunchly behind the bill.
Recently, the Center for Sportfishing Policy’s president, Jeff Angers, responded to a group of Louisiana chefs’ criticisms of the Modern Fish Act by saying
“We know who’s benefitting from cheap product taken by commercial harvesters—it’s a chef who charges $25 for a fancy meal at a French Quarter restaurant. The last people on Earth I would go to for guidance on fisheries management are chefs and fancy restaurants in New Orleans.”
David Cresson, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Louisiana chapter, also chimed in, asserting that
“To claim as some chefs have, that recreational fishermen are in favor of overfishing is nonsense.”
The Angers’ and Cresson’s response is so vehement that it’s hard not to recall the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet,
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,”
referring to the excessive strength of a one character’s assertions, which were so strong that they cast doubt upon their veracity.
Fortunately, we have some objective evidence that removes doubt from the question of whether Modern Fish Act supporters support conservation, and whether recreational fishermen, or at least those such as Cresson, in the Modern Fish Act camp, support overfishing.
That evidence comes in the form of last year’s reopening of the private boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, how folks responded to the event, and what has since occurred.
I’ve discussed that reopening a number of times, and won’t go into too much detail again. The key facts are that the original, short federal season was intended to prevent overfishing, largely due to fishing in state waters when the federal season was closed, that the Secretary reopened the season knowing that it would lead to overfishing the annual catch limit by as much as 50%, and that such overfishing was acknowledged in the federal register at the time the reopening was announced, in a statement that read, in part
“this approach will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.”
Thus, anyone involved in the issue, including the Coastal Conservation Association, the Center for Sportfishing Policy or any of the other affiliated recreational groups, couldn’t help but know that the reopening would lead to overfishing.
That makes it easy to test the truth of Cresson’s contention that recreational fishermen don’t support overfishing. You just have to ask whether they supported the red snapper reopening.
It turns out that they did.
“Anglers commend the Trump Administration and Members of Congress for hearing our calls for more access to federal waters—and for taking action,”
“action to extend the Gulf of Mexico red snapper season is a welcome boon to anglers…”
Not a single organization supporting the Modern Fish Act stepped up to the microphone to say “overfishing red snapper is wrong.”
Things got even more interesting after the Ocean Conservancyand the Environmental Defense Fund sued the Department of Commerce, arguingthat the reopening, and resultant overfishing, was illegal as a matter of law.
Not only did the various angling groups fail to intervene in the lawsuit as plaintiffs—which would have been a reasonable thing for them to do if they didn’t support overfishing, particularly in the case of those groups who claim to advocate for conservation—but some publicly condemned the lawsuit.
“We figured they would sue when this first happened because it’s what they do. Basically, any time there’s something positive for anglers, anti-angling groups like these step up and file lawsuits.
“By all accounts, the extended season has been extremely positive for anglers and businesses across the coast. But it’s just not a surprise at all that these groups would file suit to keep us off the water. They don’t like anglers, and they’d rather us [sic] never fish—and they’ll do whatever they need to do to lead to that end.”
Thus, the same person who later said that it was “nonsense” to claim that recreational anglers are in favor of overfishing not only defended recreational fishermen overfishing red snapper, but believed that such overfishing was “positive for anglers.”
Which makes it easy for everyone else to believe that claims that at least some recreational anglers—apparently including Cresson—support overfishing aren’t “nonsense” at all.
Chris Macaluso, marine fisheries director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, struck a lower-key posture, justifying the reopening as a “short-term fix” to a longer-term problem, and questioned whether overfishing would really occur as a result.
The Center for Sportfishing Policy’s Angers took the same position, but in a more combative way, arguing that there was no way that the conservation groups who brought the lawsuit could know that overfishing would occur, arguing on the record that
“We do not know if the Gulf states are going to exceed their historical catch, and the plaintiffs do not know that either. The states have the tools to collect better data than the federal government, and they have a proven track record of providing reasonable public access to healthy fish stocks.”
In this case, what Angers seems to have deemed “reasonable” public access led to an unreasonably high recreational harvest.
The Department of Commerce estimated that anglers would exceed their annual catch limit by thirty to fifty percent. It turns out that the agency vastly underestimated anglers’ ability to overfish once they set their minds to that task.
Recent information emerging from the Gulf suggests that, as a result of the reopened season, recreational fishermen didn’t cause red snapper to be overfished by 30 percent, or even by 50%. Instead, it appears that recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico caused red snapper to be overfished by more than 200 percent in 2017.
David Cresson says that it’s “nonsense” to say that anglers support overfishing.
Chris Horton, Fisheries Program Director for the Congressonal Sportsmen’s Foundation, a Modern Fish Act proponent, says that
“As anglers, we would never support a bill that would lead to widespread overfishing and fewer fish to catch…
“As the original fisheries conservationists, anglers demand that our fisheries be managed sustainably.”
It’s pretty hard to defend overfishing a stock by 212%; that’s certainly not sustainable management. Yet neither Cresson nor Horton have, to my knowledge, pointed that out.
As far as I can tell, neither one publicly expressed any outrage. Neither one demanded that that NMFS adopt measures to prevent such an extreme overharvest from occurring again.
The rest of the Modern Fish Act's supporters have been equally silent.
And that’s curious, if they’re really “the original fisheries conservationists,” and not in favor of anglers overfishing fish stocks.
Because conservationists don’t tolerate overfishing.
Conservationists don’t overfish.
Only regular, everyday fish hogs do that.