Steve Brustein of Portland, ME with a 23″ summer flounder (fluke) caught last month north of the Jamestown Bridge in Narragansett Bay, RI.
It’s nine months into a 48-month presidency, and the fish are losing their voice. With all that is going on in our country it seems odd to talk about the plight of the fish. However, it is important to note that by ignoring climate change and abusing resources such as fish, the people in our nation will feel the impact well after the present administration is gone.
The fish are losing their voice because in past administrations (Republican or Democrat) it has been a matter of rebuilding fisheries and allowing them to grow to maximum sustainable yield levels. However, that is not the case now. The administration and its appointees have engaged an agenda that focuses on whatever in the short term is economically expedient, while battering our natural resources and environment in the process. People and the fish are, and will, continue to be hurt by this agenda, and that is a tragedy.
Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is the largest average catch that can be captured from a stock under existing environmental conditions. MSY aims to achieve a balance between too much and too little harvest to keep the population at some abundance level with a maximum replacement rate.
Rebuilding fisheries and aiming harvest at MSY is being ignored by some congressmen, senators and the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross. Some aim to put local interests first, allowing more fish to be taken for short-term economic gain. Rebuilding fish stocks and the long term health of our fishery, growing fish to abundance, is taking a back seat to the short term economic gains of a few.
The fish we take off New England, in the Gulf of Mexico, and off the coast of Alaska belong to those living in Wyoming and Missouri just as much as they belong to those living in New Jersey or on the coast of Louisiana. So, fisheries have and should be managed for the benefit of all, giving the fish priority so they grow to abundance for all.
Secretary Ross is responsible for managing our national fisheries through the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the fishing law of our nation, gives fisheries management control to eight regional fisheries councils, with NOAA coordinating, supervising and implementing management decisions.
In some cases (such as in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic) a coastwide commission has been put in place. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) provides east coast management for migratory species that travel from one council’s geographic management area to another. With some species (striped bass, summer flounder, black sea bass and others on the east coast) it makes sense to manage fish coastwide.
Representatives and senators in states that have long recognized the major economic impact of fishing in their local economies have advocated with the administration and Secretary Ross to allow more fish to be taken (e.g. New Jersey with summer flounder (fluke) and the Gulf of Mexico State with red snapper). They want to take more fish than science-based harvest limits allows. Local interest groups, including some fishermen, boat manufactures, fishing retailers and the fishing-related tourism industry, want to take more fish to enhance economic gain to the detriment of the fish. And, some government leaders aim to take more fish to satisfy political pressure put upon them by these and other interest groups.
Here are some examples of the fish losing their voice to a select few for short-term economic gain in the past nine months.
Commission overruled by Secretary of Commerce
Last month Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, notified the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) that he has found the State of New Jersey to be in compliance with the new Summer Flounder Fishery Management Plan. The decision circumvented the work of the Commission that provides coastwide management of summer flounder (fluke) in our area.
In a press release in response to Secretary Ross’s decision the ASMFC said, “Based on the latest stock assessment information, summer flounder is currently experiencing overfishing. Spawning stock biomass has been declining since 2010 and is just 16% above the threshold.”
When decisions – such as the Secretary of Commerce’s decision allowing New Jersey to make their own summer flounder regulations – are allowed, they put the interests of individual states first and the fish and the nation take a back seat.
Making waves with red snapper
The Department of Commerce under Secretary Ross announced in June an agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the five Gulf Coast states to extend the 2017 recreational red snapper season by 39 weekend days in the Gulf of Mexico for private recreational anglers.
This decision to circumvent input from the public and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council was the first time under this administration that the Department of Commerce forced NOAA to make a decision ignoring existing research on stock status, harvest limits and local Council input.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources panel, noted that the Federal Register announcement of the amended season extension said that it “may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as six years.”
Moves to change the Magnuson-Stevens Act
The most troubling examples of the fish losing their voice in our nation are the bills, such as H.R. 200, that have been or are about to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate.
Many of these bills advocate for local interests rather than growing fish to abundance in the interests of our nation. Discussions around a proposed Senate bill aim to revise the Magnuson-Stevens Act by taking away many of the measures that have successfully rebuilt stocks under the existing law (over forty fish stocks have been rebuilt under the Act).
The MSA is not perfect and can use improvement. The Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing titled, “Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: NOAA and Council Perspectives.” However, the solutions offered at the Senate hearing play into the short-term economic gains strategy put forth by the administration. Solutions discussed at the hearing aimed to weaken the MSA, making it easier to eliminate annual catch and harvest limits and loosening the need for accountability (so if you fish over your quota or harvest limit there are little or no consequences).
These proposed changes would empower the Secretary of Commerce, NOAA and individual states to go their own way with harvest limits with little regard for what is good for the fishery or the nation.
We need a strong MSA so fish can keep their voice
The fisheries policy changes engaged by Secretary Ross and the administration over the past nine months have clearly demonstrated a path of short-term economic gains as the priority. Rebuilding fish stocks to maximum sustainable yield, so we have an abundance of fish for all in the nation to catch and eat, has taken a back seat.
It is important we give the fish their voice back today, as there may be no fish to catch if we continue down this path.