Why Do We Need a Crisis to ‘Organize?’

Bob's spring ling

I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life organizing anglers to do good for fish. It seems that unless there’s a crisis (i.e. hatcheries closing) most anglers are content just going about their business, taking advantage of the good times, and critiquing agency policy during the bad times. I think it may stem from today’s societal gravitation towards instant gratification rather than long-term sustainability. Mother Earth isn’t having any of it.

Although I know little about Native American heritage, I’ve always been fascinated with it, especially their connection to the Earth. Their deities are largely based on nature. I seemed to have been convinced by parents and aunts and uncles that fishing was my church. I certainly felt more alive outside on the river than inside my Catholic church despite still claiming to be spiritual in nature. For what little I know, I do believe the greatest lesson I have learned from the few Native American friends that I do have is that they believe in living a life that ensures a future for the next six generations of their people. Can you imagine the abundance of fish and wildlife if European settlers had adopted such a creed?

In those same six generations, our urban “crawl” has dropped wild salmonid abundance to around 3% of their historical abundance on the west coast, crippled, crashed and rebuilt many stocks of groundfish and effectively wiped thousands of species of flora and fauna off the face of the Earth, forever. I hoped you picked out the bright spot in that sentence; recovery is possible, but first you have to admit there is a problem. But apparently, it has to be a really big problem.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) was on track for reauthorization in Congress, prior to the untimely passing of Alaska Congressman Don Young. Congressman Young, like his state’s Senator Ted Stevens, whom said Act was named after, cared a lot about the future of this resource. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, amongst other reasons, was crafted to address a resource in deep decline, and how to reverse the trend of depleted fish stocks, certainly a crisis at that time. IT GOT DONE.

Fast forward to today, stocks are largely on the rebound (See stock status report here) and even our beleaguered Columbia River salmon have come back in greater numbers than predicted this season, a very welcome turn-around. So, nothing to worry about? That’s what we said 80 years ago.

Although we seem to have a good grip in fisheries management, ecosystem management is a whole other ball game, and the larger the home ranges (salmon vs. more residential rockfish), the more challenging the “management.”

When we think of salmon restoration, we think of improving freshwater habitat, something we feel we have more control over versus the saltwater habitat. We also think of dam breaching, restoring a series of reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia, back to a functioning river system so juvenile salmon can get to sea more safely. When we think of groundfish restoration, we think of reducing or closing harvest, and stopping destructive fishing methods such as trawl gear over sensitive fish habitat. All good, all worth of investment. But now that we have that largely under control, what factors do we need to look ahead for, that will certainly impact stabilizing stocks of fish?

Maybe we start with the low-hanging fruit:

  1. Depletion of forage fish – Although the ocean seems to be making an incredible comeback as far as productivity, how long will it last? No one is naïve enough to believe it’s going to last long. This chart shows how volatile ocean production can be, and how often it changes. We’ll take the good times right now, and pray they last a while. More effectively managing forage fish stocks and understanding their value to our ocean ecosystem is incredibly important for all stocks of fish that utilize the saltwater environment.
  2. Climate change, and its effects on our ocean – I think we’re past the myth busting now; climate change is real, and we don’t have a grip on how it’s going to impact our coastal communities. A carefully crafted reauthorization of MSA will address the need for resiliency and seek solutions on how to deal with this impending disaster (certainly sooner than six generations from now). Ocean acidification is already on the Oregon Coast. It’s had an impact on oyster culture, so what the heck is it doing to crab larvae? Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery is the most valuable on the West Coast, should we ignore that for a few more years?
  3. And how about how much we don’t know, about what we don’t know? What concerns might you have? After doing a research project on Tillamook Bay, I became perplexed and concerned about the role woody debris plays in the ocean environment. We have long been schooled on the value of large wood in the freshwater ecosystems, but guess what also jump starts the ocean food web? Yes, organic material. We’ve all likely heard of upwelling, but without organic material decaying off of the continental shelf to jump start the food web, just how efficient would upwelling be? I think you get my “drift,” how much do we really know about ecosystem function? We got a long ways to go, baby.

So how about we start thinking about the next iteration of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It was a bi-partisan key piece of legislation that has worked, and worked very well. One might even say Senators Stevens and Magnuson had the foresight to understand what six generations of benefit might look like. Let’s make sure we adopt the same sideboards of sensibility for the next go-around, because we may not have another chance.

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.

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