Fish stocks and sequestration

It’s silly season in the nation’s capital.

When politicos aren’t working themselves into a lather over who’s up and who’s down in the presidential and congressional campaigns, they’re working themselves into a lather over budget sequestration. We’re not hearing ‘fiscal cliff’ and ‘fisheries’ in the same sentence too often just yet, but that may change.

For those of you who make the decidedly rational choice to spend your time on the water rather than follow the minutiae of the federal budget, here’s a quick sequestration primer: As part of a deal to break the impasse over the debt ceiling, Congress passed legislation called the Budget Control Act back in August of last year. That law established a Joint Select Committee to forge bipartisan consensus on parts of the federal budget to cut and how to raise new revenues. When the committee failed spectacularly, the law’s automatic trigger of $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over nine years was invoked. The first of those years is 2013.

Many headlines have focused on the impact that sequestration would have on our national security capabilities and defense-related jobs. But sequestration goes far beyond that. A White House report issued last month telegraphed total cuts of $109 billion in 2013. Digging into the details of that report confirms that a sequester of 8.2 percent could be in store for the so-called ‘Operations, Research and Facilities’ (ORF) account of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That esoteric-sounding account matters to fishermen, big time. For example, it provides funding for stock assessments, cooperative research, and recreational fisheries statistics. And we’re not just talking bells and whistles: it’s funding the core information infrastructure upon which our entire science-based fishery management system depends. ORF covers more than just fisheries, and the butter is being spread thin; the account has been squeezed badly in recent years by the ballooning costs of NOAA’s satellite program. And, as a new fact sheet released by environmentalists on sequester impacts points out, the sequestration plan would dramatically escalate that dangerous dynamic.

This stuff matters. Without the information on our fisheries that we need, heightened uncertainty creeps into management plans — which leads to the provision of more precautionary quotas that reduce fishing opportunities for commercial fishermen and recreational anglers alike. In other words, the sequester’s not just a looming threat to defense jobs; it could well threaten fishing jobs and the well-being of coastal communities.

There’s no end of theories about where the sequestration conversation will go after November 6th. Everyone seems to be betting that, with the heat of the election campaign behind us, lawmakers will find an alternative approach in consultation with the president — whether it be a reelected Mr. Obama or a victorious Mr. Romney. But those very same optimists are hard-pressed to explain what the specifics of any such deal might look like.

A lot is riding on this election and its aftermath — including for constituencies that aren’t necessarily the focus of the presidential stump speeches and debates. Next time you hear talk of the fiscal cliff, it’s worth keeping in mind that our nation’s fishermen, coastal communities and seafood lovers are among those dangerously close to the precipice.

4 thoughts on “Fish stocks and sequestration

  1. Matt, great post. What are your views to perhaps moving the US system toward more comprehensive cost-recovery mechanisms or public-private management partnerships? As I understand, a great deal of the cost of public management services is not paid for by fishermen themselves.

    • Thanks Mark. You raise an important issue. There are a number of cost-recovery mechanisms already in place. In Alaska, for example, many commercial fishermen cover observer costs directly. Other fisheries around the country are transitioning to similar arrangements. And on the recreational side, a variety of schemes are in place to ensure that angler license fees support fisheries science, management and habitat conservation.

      In the current fiscal environment two things are important. First, cost-recovery schemes and public-private partnerships need to be explored and stood up — but only in ways that are efficient, effective and equitable. That means working with fishermen at the Council level to consider the deployment of new technologies such as electronic monitoring, and giving fishermen a say in how on-board observer programs are structured. Cost recovery can have crushing impacts on smaller operators. For example, the sharp increases in costs-per-day-at-sea estimates that we saw emerge during the North Pacific Council deliberations this month have been greeted with alarm by small boat fleets.

      Second, we need to recognize that investments in the sustainable management of public trust resources — investments that facilitate the flow of commerce and are an economic engine for our coastal communities — are an important national investment. Just as bridges and roads on land are used by private interests for profit, but are only partly covered by cost-recovery mechanisms, so too should our fisheries information infrastructure be prioritized by appropriators. Getting the balance right is difficult but crucial — particularly at this moment of fiscal austerity.

  2. Pingback: Lame duck Congress must provide fisheries disaster funding | FishHQ

  3. Pingback: Ghosts of 2012: fisheries funding is unfinished business for the new Congress | FishHQ

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