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WINTER OF DISCONTENT

Editorial

    The House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources voted in mid-December to move H.R. 200, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” out of committee.
    That is the first actual movement forward on the bill, which has been kicking around in some form since late 2013.
    I share those facts with you to point out, once again, that we are still no closer to having an actual, tangible fix for the continual hell wrought on fishermen by the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. As I’ve noted previously, the last reauthorization of the law governing fisheries management, in late 2006, has been slowly but surely strangling fishing communities around the country. The popularity of shows like “Wicked Tuna” aside, the number of folks operating fishing-based businesses is declining.
    And as Capt. Tred Barta points out in this issue (be sure you read Tred’n Water), instead of turning anger on the politicians who continue to be swayed by the hyperbole of the environmental businesses who make millions of dollars each year exploiting the fear that we humans are killing the oceans, there’s been a ramp-up in recreational fishing blaming commercial fishermen.
    As Tred points out, that is more than misguided: it’s wrong. Commercial fishermen are being strangled just as badly as recreational anglers. “But they get to keep 14-inch fish,” you say. Sure. You can focus on that, but it’s seeing the tree and missing the forest. Commercial fishermen have such tight rules on how much they can catch that with some species, they fish for a few days and then they’re done, at least for that species and for a set period of time. And that down time is getting longer and longer, even though there are fewer fishermen.
    Magnuson has done that. Not commercial fishermen – they are more tightly regulated than almost any industry. They have to fill out forms and report their catch down to the ounce, unlike those of us who fish for the enjoyment of the sport. When was the last time you had to report the weight of every fish caught on your boat after a day offshore? Unless you are taking paying customers or trying to sell the meat, you don’t.
    I hate to tell you, but the fact that the latest iteration of the reauthorization of Magnuson has moved out of committee really isn’t promising. Why? Because for starters, there is no companion bill of any kind in the Senate. The last time the Senate took any action on the matter was in May 2015. They held a hearing that month on the collection of fisheries data – which has been one of the biggest problems over the last 20 years in managing fisheries. In a time of rapid change, the changes and improvements in how fisheries data is collected – particularly on the recreational side – have changed very little. And mindsets on how fisheries are managed have changed little as well.
    I remember sitting in a series of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meetings in 2005 and 2006 listening to discussions of how fisheries management needed to move to an ecosystem-based approach. The fisheries commissioners and the scientists both acknowledged that in some regards, trying to manage fisheries to bring all species to a maximum level set by some mathematical equation ignored some basic issues, including simple predation of one species on another.
    Yet here we are, in 2017, still setting catch limits on individual species as though they’re swimming in tanks in an aquarium. Why? Because changing the approach would require an overhaul of the entire approach and methodology of how fisheries are treated. That may never happen – look at how long it has taken to implement the Marine Recreational Information Program.
    It’s not just the fact that there’s no companion bill in the Senate that tells me meaningful change to Magnuson is still a ways off. There’s other factors, starting with the incredible dysfunction of our government as a whole. The heated battles of ideology are paralyzing Congress on so many topics, and fisheries isn’t one that grabs headlines. I know there were a number of folks who believed electing Donald Trump as president would be a cure for all of the ills that fishermen face, but let’s be honest: The man doesn’t give a damn about fishing. When’s the last time you saw him holding a fishing rod? Trump is a golfer, and (as much as I happen to enjoy playing golf) that means fixing our fisheries management system is just not high on his list of priorities.
    The current political dysfunction plays another role in this, because we’re in a perpetual campaign season now. The 2016 presidential election campaign actually started in 2015. The campaigns for both the House and the third of the Senate that will be up for election this year have begun – the mail coming to my home is proof of that. With so much energy already focused on the 2018 election (as I write this we haven’t even reached Christmas), I wouldn’t bet on much of anything being accomplished. And because there’s just enough pushback from the environmental businesses – Oceana, the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council – aided by some groups that claim to support fishermen – I just believe it’s unlikely Magnuson will get fixed. We get lots of promises, but the sad fact of the matter is the plight of fishermen only matters to those states directly affected – and then only those portions right on the coast. We’re just not a high priority to anyone but ourselves.
    The House bill as written would make some important improvements. Tops among them would be replacing the word “overfished” with “depleted.” That change is critical to changing the entire mindset of how fishermen are viewed, because it no longer puts all of the blame on fishermen. Words matter. Tremendously. And you can bet that change will be fought most vigorously by the Marine Fish Conservation Network and its cronies.
    Less impactful is the requirement for NOAA to “develop guidelines that will incorporate data from private entities into fishery management plans.” Developing guidelines cracks the door and forces NOAA to think about the decades of vessel trip reports filed by charter and party boat captains, but it’s still not a requirement that the information be used. One step at a time, I suppose.
    Now that the House bill has moved out of committee, the anti-fishing forces are really going to go all-out to stop the bill as written – and they have said as much. The Marine Fish Conservation Network has stated its opposition to HR 200 on its website and said it is taking up the fight with the Senate. That will take concerted fight from fishermen, and that means we have to be as educated and passionate about the issues as we are about the newest techniques and gear. Take the time this winter. Do some in-depth reading about Magnuson and what it has done to fishermen. There are plenty of folks around who can tell you about the fights that went on back at the start of this century. You need to know and understand how deep this problem and this fight goes.
    I would love to be wrong. I would love to be sitting here in June, or August, or October writing that we’ve finally gotten relief. But I’m not betting on it. Congress is too busy worrying about whether Democrats or Republicans are going to get credit – or blame – on every hot topic. They don’t really care about what’s best for We the People and they haven’t for a very long time.




Karen Wall

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