Fish Politics 2017: First Thoughts On The Future

Charles Witek

The Marine Fish Conservation Network is a nonpartisan organization. The thoughts and opinions of this author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Network.

This election year is one of the big ones, when races for the President, the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate happen at the same time.

In the course of the campaigns, we’ve heard about walls, women and wars, along with various economic and social issues, but conservation, and more particularly fisheries conservation, largely flew under the radar.

So, with the big day drawing near, it’s reasonable to ask: Exactly what does this election mean for the fish?

It’s hard to say for certain, but a few guesses are certainly in order.

It’s probably worthwhile to recognize that, unlike Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. and George H.W. Bush, neither of the current presidential candidates are fishermen or particularly tied to the outdoors, although I know a charter boat captain on western Long Island who has guided one of Mr. Trump’s sons on a few occasions.

Thus, neither candidate will be viewing fisheries issues through their own eyes, but will instead be depending on the views of their advisors.

In that respect, the incoming administration will be little different than that of President Obama, which had a good record on fisheries issues, and even gave prospective notice that H.R. 1335, a particularly bad bill that would have weakened the most important provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), would be vetoed should it eventually cross the President’s desk.

As I write this, less than two weeks before the election, FiveThirtyEight Politics, one of the more reliable predictors of election outcomes, is giving Hillary Clinton an 82% chance of winning the election. That number changes somewhat from time to time during each day, as new polls cast new light on the probably outcome. However, the probability of a Clinton win hasn’t dropped below 80% since the third Presidential debate, and with only a short time to go, such a win seems to be the likely outcome.

If that happens, administration policy on fisheries is unlikely to change very much, at least at the beginning of the administration.

On the other hand, should Donald Trump end up in the White House, there’s little clear guidance on how his administration would address fisheries issues.

The only clue comes from language in the 2016 Republican Platform that says

“We are the party of America’s growers, producers, farmers, ranchers, foresters, miners, commercial fishermen, and all those who bring from the earth the crops, minerals, energy, and the bounties of our seas that are the lifeblood of our economy…Only a few years ago, a bipartisan consensus in government valued the role of extractive industries, and rewarded their enterprise be minimizing its interference with their work. That has radically changed. We look in vain within the Democratic Party for leaders who will speak for the people of agriculture, energy and mineral production.”

While that’s far from definitive, it suggests that a Trump administration might seek to “minimize its interference” with fishing activities, and not adopt needed conservation measures.

FiveThirtyEight predicts that the Democrats will take over the Senate as well as retain the presidency. However, the probability of that is less overwhelming—about two chances out of three—and has been swinging quite a bit, rising from barely 50-50 on October 9 to a 75% likelihood about a week later, before sinking to its current level.

The 2016 Democratic Platform makes no generic statements about fishing at all, although it does make a specific reference to preserving Alaska’s Bristol Bay salmon fishery, and gives the party’s support to other environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Support for other conservation measures could suggest that a Democratic majority in the Senate would support fisheries conservation, but such support is far from assured. As the late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill (D-Massachusetts) used to observe, “All politics is local,” and the same northeastern Democrats who might willingly support protections for Bristol Bay salmon can become very hostile to Magnuson-Stevens when it starts restricting their constituents’ ability to bring home big hauls of summer flounder or New England groundfish.

Should Democrats gain control of the Senate, Charles Schumer (D-New York) would be among the top leadership figures, and could well become the Majority Leader. Less than a decade ago, Sen. Schumer was the lead sponsor of the Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act, a bill that would weaken Magnuson-Stevens in essentially the same manner proposed by H.R. 1335.

In recent years, Sen. Schumer hasn’t reintroduced such legislation, but the possibility of him doing so, should his constituents request it, would loom larger than ever in a Democratic Senate.

Thus, it is probably not good news that the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to reduce summer flounder catch limits by 30% in 2017, due to six years of below-average spawning success. While the state of the stock clearly justifies such reductions, they will have a short-term impact on fishermen in both New York and New Jersey, and could affect the way Sen. Schumer and other mid-Atlantic legislators look at the law. It could be argued, and it might even be true, that a change in Senate control could put Magnuson-Stevens in greater peril than would be the case if Republicans retained control of that chamber.

The House of Representatives is also unlikely to grow any friendlier to fishery conservation issues in the next Congress. While there is only a very slim chance that the Democrats will take control of that chamber, the Republicans’ current 30-seat majority could fall to something between 10 and 20 seats.

That could make things more difficult for conservation advocates than they are today, for the seats the Republicans are most likely to lose are those from more moderate, suburban districts. The new Republican majority, while smaller, will almost certainly include many members who have already demonstrated a deep hostility to Magnuson-Stevens and to conservation efforts in general. In a smaller Republican caucus, such members will be able to exert an even greater influence on party leadership.

Thus, we can expect legislation very similar to H.R. 1335 to be introduced early in the new session, and should expect to see other extreme legislative efforts, such as Rep. Garret Graves’ (R-Louisiana) Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act, dropped into the hopper as well.

Various interest groups are already getting ready for next year’s battles. The fisheries conservation community is likely to face a number of challenges, including the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, in the upcoming Congress.

To prevail, it must quickly convince the incoming administration that the restoration and conservation of America’s living marine resources should be an important priority. It must support friends in the Senate who have supported Magnuson-Stevens in the past, and convince them to stay the course even if needed conservation measures impact their constituents. And it must identify members in the House who are willing to take a principled stand in favor of science-based fisheries management, and against bills that would weaken current fisheries laws.

Although this election may bring some real change to Washington, some things will remain the same. The fight for the future of the nation’s fish stocks will remain long and hard.

And it will remain extremely worthwhile.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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