Don’t believe the hype… Conservationists/environmentalists are the good-guys.
I suppose it’s nothing new these days for the fishing community to blame all their troubles on environmentalists, but indeed the intensity of the blame-game has been ramped up in recent years. “Radicals”, “extremists”, “socialists”, “elitists”, “antis” etc… You know… Those people who want to “end all fishing.” Recently, some folks have gone so far to claim that the environmental community is really part of a grand conspiracy by “Big Oil” to abolish all fishing so it can drill wherever and whenever it wants. If would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.
For too long, fishermen harvesting marine resources exhibited very little restraint, and refused to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It is far easier to place blame elsewhere: “The data isn’t reliable”, “there’s too much development” and “there’s too much pollution…” While such claims contain some truth, they do not justify continued overfishing. When fish populations face stress from changing climate, pollution, habitat loss or other factors, it’s plain stupidity to continue to catch them faster than they can reproduce, yet fishermen routinely point their fingers at such problems, and try to use them as excuses for overfishing collapsed stocks (e.g. New England winter flounder and Gulf and South Atlantic red snapper). Really, such additional stresses should be addressed by reducing harvest, for while many factors can contribute to a stock’s decline, fishing is the only factor that managers can realistically affect enough to promote a recovery.
Fishing is clearly part of the problem, and it’s a part we can solve. And this is exactly what the fish-focused environmental and conservation NGOs are trying to do. The fact of the matter is that these groups exist because of the historic lack of foresight in the industry-dominated management system. History is pretty clear in showing that such a system doesn’t work.
Since the late 1970s, the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act gave fishermen substantial authority to manage their own fisheries through a Regional Council System. On the whole, they failed, producing management plans that put a lot more emphasis on protecting short-term jobs rather than fish. With few exceptions, Councils dominated by commercial and recreational industry interests have historically done everything they can to maximize harvest, even in the face of stocks that are declining or not rebuilding.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has always had the power to overrule the Councils, but has only begun to exercise it in recent years, after NGOs won the landmark lawsuit National Resources Defense Council v. Daley. The decision in that action required NMFS to adopt fishery management plans that had at least a 50% chance of success; previously, “rebuilding” plans far more likely to fail than succeed were routinely implemented. Even after the court decision, the fishing community goes berserk every time new catch restrictions are even mentioned, and too many management plans still represent the Councils’ creative efforts to maintain high harvest levels while appearing to comply with the strict requirements of the law.
Politicians with fishing communities in their districts add greatly to the problem, putting pressure on NMFS and pulling strings behind the scenes to avoid the unfortunate but necessary short term pain that is required to rebuild stocks. They use the promise of short-term economic benefits to buy their constituents votes, and in doing so doom the fishing communities that they purport to protect to a long, slow, painful death. Northeastern congressmen are masters of the dance, earning high praise from the environmental community for blocking oil drilling in Alaska and restricting mining in the Rockies, and thus earning a pass when they clear the way for their constituents continued destruction of fish stocks in the north Atlantic.
While there are some fisherman who do care tremendously about the resource, their voices are lost in the tumultuous debate when the tough decisions need to be made that will cost jobs. At such times, when the livelihoods of their friends and neighbors are on the line, even such folks will reject conservation provisions in favor of continued exploitation. The fabled culture of brave hardworking fishermen seems to have devolved into a one that places its highest vales on continuing overfishing and resisting any meaningful change.
Whether we consider the commercial or the recreational sector, it has become quite clear that an industry that profits from the harvest of a public resource is not capable of self-regulation.
And that leads us to the recent Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council appointments. A few weeks ago three folks with ties to the environmental community were appointed to the Council. Fishing industry reaction was predictable. “Through policy and appointments, the Obama Administration is advancing an anti-fishing agenda consistent with groups like Pew, Environmental Defense Fund, Ocean Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Marine Fish Conservation Network,” said Jim Hutchinson, Jr., Managing Director of the New Jersey-based Recreational Fishing Alliance.
That’s pretty funny. I know two out of the three folks who were appointed… because I’ve fished with them! Both of those folks are avid anglers and I’m told the third one, whom I’ve yet to meet, is as well. One appointee, Steve Schafer, is actually the Director of Retail Operations for Wild Edibles, a seafood market in NYC. Does that sound like someone who would advocate an “anti-fishing” agenda?
Yes, the new Council Appointees do have ties to the environmental community. So what? This is a good thing. In the interests of full disclosure, I have ties to the environmental community as well. Regular Reel-Time readers know that I work full time for the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, running their grants program, which provides equipment grants for folks working to protect marine fish and their habitat. I’ve even done some consulting work for EDF! Yet I also run a profitable charter fishing business, and am an active recreational fisherman even when I’m not guiding anglers. I see the two careers as complimentary, as my business relies on sustainable resources. (Frankly, I’m a little offended that these folks didn’t make such a ruckus when I was appointed to the Mid Atlantic Council!)
Getting back to the point, it looks as if more and more folks who call themselves environmentalists or conservationists are clawing their way into the fishery management world, whether it’s though the Council appointment process or though their advocacy efforts. The reality is that such folks are being brought into the fisheries management fold by necessity. And it’s a good thing, because we need such people to balance the Councils.
With the continued over-exploitation of ocean resources, and the resulting collateral damage to fishing communities, the public has begun to take notice. The shift we’re seeing now represents the People, not just “environmentalists”, seeking to represent the public interest in the public policy decision-making that takes place at the Councils. Such folks are coming off the bench to assert the public’s rights as owners of ocean resources, which has too long been subordinated to the industries’ private economic interests. If the fishermen had been able to set aside their self-interest, and represent the public instead of themselves, when making Council decisions, we wouldn’t see the environmental/conservation community taking such an active role.
There’s no doubt about it in my mind that “environmentalists”, “conservationists” or whatever you want to call them are the good guys here. They aren’t trying to shut down fishing; they’re trying to put fisheries management on the right track so that commercial and recreational fisheries exist well into the future. You can’t have fisheries without fish. The real “anti-fishing” groups, are the industry representatives who demean managers, attack the NGOs and dismiss the science in their selfish attempt to catch as many fish as they can today, and your kids and your grandkids be damned…
Tougher fishery management provisions were incorporated into the Magnuson Act in 2006 and councils are now struggling to implement them. We now have a NOAA Administrator in place that seems quite serious about stopping overfishing. Things are changing. The pro-exploitation crowd is going to kick their feet, throw a tantrum and call everybody names. But are we in danger of having those scary “radical environmentalists” and “anti-fishing” folks end fishing? No way… It won’t happen. The People won’t stand for it. Recreational fishing will continue. Commercial fishing will continue. But we will move toward a system where we catch what is reasonable, and leave a few in the water for tomorrow—which is really nothing more than the ethic that our fathers or our grandfathers taught us when we first wet a line. That means stopping overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks, using science to make conservation decisions, and managing with more precaution. We are all stakeholders in ocean policy, it’s not reserved just for those folks who profit from a public resource… and that’s the way it should be.