House to disaster-hit fishermen: you’re on your own

Today the House of Representatives will take long-awaited action to assist victims of Superstorm Sandy. But shamefully, disaster-hit fishermen will receive little or no respite.

We’ve been tracking and promoting efforts to secure fisheries disaster funding here at FishHQ for some months. Readers know the Sandy legislation that passed the Senate included $150 million for those devastated by fisheries disasters. Potential beneficiaries include fishermen in New York and New Jersey who’s livelihoods have been destroyed by Sandy. They also include those devastated by analogous disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and New England — all formally recognized by the Secretary of Commerce, and all caused by factors entirely outside fishermen’s control.

A package crafted by House leadership, however, excluded fisheries disaster funding. And last night, the House Rules Committee chose to allow just 13 of 94 amendments that had been filed by Members to be offered on the House floor. Among those excluded: amendments from Massachusetts and New Jersey lawmakers that sought to reinstate fisheries disaster funding. A substantial amendment package that will be offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) — to add an additional $33 billion in funds, bringing the total package close to the Senate level — includes just $5 million in fisheries disaster funding, and limits beneficiaries to those suffering Sandy-related losses.

The House’s failure to provide disaster assistance to fishermen in desperate need is outrageous; and unfortunately, the odds of overcoming their intransigence through any Senate or Conference action do not look good.

Victims of Sandy need help now – but they’re not the only ones

It’s no surprise to those of us who watch fisheries issues closely here in Washington that fisheries have gotten pulled into the political fisticuffs over a hurricane Sandy aid package. The uninitiated casual observer might easily wonder what’s fisheries got to do with Washington, and what’s Washington got to do with fisheries? As Sera has pointed out in the past, the ties are intricate and long-standing.

It’s unfortunate that funding fisheries disasters is being used to make a political point deriding Washington’s love of “pork”; a claim that, as Matt has pointed out, is grossly inaccurate. Those who are claiming that providing federal funding for fisheries as part of an aid package directly meant to help victims of Hurricane Sandy (that’s Sandy, not Isaac, or wildfires, or droughts or…) are frankly missing the forest for the trees.

There’s no question that Hurricane Sandy was the biggest disaster of 2012. It was literally a freak of nature, and it caused widespread damage the like of which we’ve rarely, if ever, seen. As such, the demand for aid was met with little questioning; with such a wide range of impact, politicians from up and down the east coast were met with little resistance when they asked for help. Nor should they have been.

But just because Sandy was the biggest disaster, and the most riveting to watch unfold on TV, doesn’t mean that other communities across the country suffered any less when disaster struck them. Unnoted by the national media, communities in Alaska suffered from disappearing salmon runs. In the Yukon River, a fishery generally valued at $1.5 million produced revenue of $0. This is a fishery that supports not only commercial and sports fishermen, whose businesses suffered from the disappearing fish, but subsistence fishermen, who suffer from the lack of food. As Alaska Senator Mark Begich tweeted in response to criticisms against “pork”, “This is about food & survival, and it’s serious.”

Equally serious is the condition of the New England groundfish fishery, where disappearing cod is leading to deep quota cuts. The exact reason for the fishery’s decline is unclear, but fishermen had been fishing according to science based catch limits, and pretty much all signs point to environmental causes, including changes in the ocean that are linked to climate change. Again, not a disaster noted by the national media, but that doesn’t mean the suffering of those affected by it isn’t all too real. In the words of Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, “this economic disaster is New England’s underwater equivalent of a drought, where the drops in stocks of fish are causing serious economic harm to fishing businesses, their families, and their communities. These people need help.”

A third disaster was declared in the Mississippi oyster and blue crab fisheries thanks to extreme droughts the year before. And when Hurricane Sandy hit, the Department of Commerce quickly granted fisheries disaster status to New York and New Jersey. It was the fourth, and certainly the biggest disaster. But do the people who suffered from it deserve aid any more than those who were already suffering?

The arguments of those who are insisting that this aid package is about Sandy and Sandy only have offered no good arguments as to why aid should be granted to the sufferers of one disaster, but not another. If the standard news cycle is any indication, Americans have short attention spans that are held by flashy things just until the next showy story comes around, be it a worthy topic like a natural disaster or gun control, or a lesser one, like the Bieb just being the Bieb.

130111 news search google trend sandy vs the bieb

In an editorial this week USA Today declared that states asking for funding that had nothing to do with Sandy should put their outstretched hands back in their pockets. And while beating the drum for federal spending cuts damn the consequences is certainly in-line with the mood in Washington, it ignores the fact that nature on steroids is in many ways a result of another area in which we’re pretty out of control—fossil fuel consumption. As long as the government is subsidizing the activities that are leading to the unhinging of nature for the benefit of one part of the American public, spending a meager $150 million to help some of the American’s whose lives are in upheaval as a result of these policies is the least they can do, whether that upheaval came in the showiest storm of the season or not.

In the joined voices of the Senators from New York and New Jersey, who are facing the challenges of rebuilding from a disaster first hand, “All disaster victims have a right to expect their government to help them rebuild, whether they live in Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, New York or New Jersey.”

Or Alaska. Or Mississippi. Or Massachusetts. Just sayin’.

Fishery disasters on four coasts share a common thread

Fisheries disaster declarations made waves earlier this year when the Department of Commerce made them official in three disparate parts of the country. But as Matt points out in FishHQ this week, “the difference between a token and a meaningful federal disaster declaration is cold hard cash.” We didn’t expect any action on this pre-election, but as Congress came back to DC for a fast and dirty lame duck session, we’re hoping to see fisheries included in the final funding bill. Working with fishermen and environmentalists in our community, we sent a letter to Congressional leadership this week urging them to support fishermen and fishing communities in need.

The disasters that have been declared—and those that haven’t but ought to be, due to the recent impacts of Hurricane Sandy—are not a result of overfishing or mismanagement, but the complex consequences of varied but troubling environmental factors. All three declared fishery disasters, and the pending request from New Jersey following Sandy, are in a state of disaster due to environmental factors that go beyond controlling fishing effort.

The Chinook salmon fishery in Alaska was declared a disaster due to incredibly low runs this year. The annual average value of the Chinook fishery on the Yukon River fell from $1.5M, to produce $0 revenue according to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game. Nobody knows what caused the fall off of salmon, but scientists are looking to the ocean (as opposed to the freshwater where these anadromous fish spend some of their time) as the likely scene of the crime. Alaska Dispatch has a thorough summary of some of the guesses scientists have hazarded, and the various types of research that could be conducted to shine light on the question.

There are many fascinating potential causes for the low runs—predator interactions, bycatch of salmon in other fisheries, changing ocean conditions—all of these alone or in combination could be contributing to salmon population declines. But this is no academic question to be pondered in the ivory tower. People throughout Alaska rely on salmon for subsistence and the failing fishery has already led to social unrest as some angry villagers ignored the closures set by the Department of Fish and Game. Fishers will be left with empty hands unless Congress puts its weight behind the disaster declaration and appropriates funds.

In Mississippi, the disaster for the blue crab and oyster fisheries is much more clearly attributable to severe flooding of the lower Mississippi River in the spring of 2011. The flooding caused dramatic changes in the salinity of the Mississippi sound and wiped out nearly 8,000 acres of oyster beds. The region had still not recovered from previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, and a drought that preceded the flooding. The Sun-Herald quoted Scott Gordon the Shellfish Bureau director of the Department of Marine Resources noting “The Western Sound has seen one disaster after another…and has not completely recovered.”

The last disaster that was declared in September was the groundfish fishery in New England. This case falls into the scientific mystery category more than the Mississippi disaster. In spite of the fact that fishermen have been adhering to catch limits on groundfish, the stocks are not recovering, putting New England fishermen and the industry that supports them in a real bind. New England governors began calling for the fishery to be declared a disaster when scientists discovered that certain groundfish stocks were at much lower levels than scientists had anticipated. Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank noted in making the disaster declaration that “diminished fish stocks have resulted despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits intended to rebuild the stocks.” Scientists are working with what they have to answer the question of what’s going on with groundfish, but as in Alaska the factors are myriad and complex. Some scientists are worried that record high temperatures in New England waters could be to blame—and if they are, it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.

New England fisherman at work; photo credit Flickr user mitulmdesai CC BY-NC 2.0

With Congress back in session, fishermen, public officials and seafood industry workers are discussing the likelihood of the disasters being appropriated funds in what is otherwise expected to be a continued season of austerity. In New England, stakeholders don’t necessarily see eye to eye on how the cash—should it materialize—should be spent.

We hope those suffering because of these disasters are given some relief. But responding to disasters after the fact isn’t enough, and fishermen and coastal communities should prepare for a wider discussion about how we manage fisheries in this changing world.

President Obama made a tepid statement this week about tackling climate change sometime in his second term—after the economy, jobs and growth are all taken care of. And while fishermen and others who are dependent on healthy, functioning ecosystems may be pleased to hear it’s at least on his list, the way it was framed feels a bit disconnected with the reality of what a shifting climate is going to mean for the economy, jobs and growth in the future. For the millions of Americans unable to do their jobs due to droughts, floods and hurricanes—not to mention the more enigmatic changes taking place (such as ocean acidification)—creating jobs that are going to sink into the climate quick sand might not be as solid a game plan as the President no doubt hopes.

Do the current crop of fisheries disasters portend what’s to come? Like a major storm, no one disaster or event can necessarily be attributed to climate change. But the fisheries disasters we’ve seen in 2012 raise uncomfortable questions about what’s really causing fisheries disasters at this scale that would be irresponsible to ignore.

Lame duck Congress must provide fisheries disaster funding

Senators and Members of Congress have returned to Washington this week for what promises to be an action-packed ‘lame duck’ session. All eyes are on the fiscal cliff — the resolution of which, as I wrote last month, will potentially have a big impact on the health of our nation’s fisheries. But for many fishermen there’s another urgent action item on the congressional ‘to do’ list: providing emergency funding to alleviate the impact of federal fisheries disasters.

As FishHQ readers know well, America’s federal fisheries are increasingly sustainable and healthy. But in some specific fisheries this year, external climactic shocks have taken their toll. In September, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank issued disaster declarations for certain fisheries in the Northeast, Mississippi and Alaska; and since then Hurricane Sandy has done enormous damage to fisheries in New Jersey and New York.

It should come as little surprise that the difference between a token and a meaningful federal disaster declaration is cold hard cash. And in case anyone was in any doubt, that’s not a commodity in boundless supply right now in Washington, DC. President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress may have adopted very different negotiating positions for how to address the fiscal cliff, but both agree that some serious belt-tightening will be involved.

Still, the lame duck is likely to consider emergency funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and potentially also for farmers devastated by drought. Our view is that fisheries disaster assistance needs to be appropriated in any such funding package that gains traction on Capitol Hill. And earlier today we wrote to House and Senate leaders to reinforce that view.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated as the lame duck session gets underway, and the potential for disaster funds to reach fishing communities in need becomes clearer.


In Sandy’s wake: our satellite crisis

Along much of the East Coast, countless communities that fell in Sandy’s path are just beginning a long and painful process — of assessing the damage and starting to rebuild. Our hearts are with all of them. Yesterday we provided a wrap-up of some of the news reports that focused on fishing community impacts. Today, as President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie visit Atlantic City, the Jersey Coast anglers with whom we work are especially in our thoughts.

Beyond the immediate priority of responding to the ongoing disaster and doing everything possible to speed the process of recovery, it is appropriate in time to ponder the lessons we can learn from having endured an extreme weather event of this magnitude. One urgent lesson relates to our nation’s climate satellite capacity.

On October 26, before Sandy made landfall, the New York Times published a frightening article sounding the alarm on the looming climate satellite capacity gap. As existing polar satellites near the end of their lifespan, the launch date for their replacement has continually slipped. Responsible officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been left scrambling to find ways to avoid two years or more during which the accuracy of critical weather forecasting could be jeopardized. Another round of urgent restructuring of NOAA’s satellite program was ordered last month, but we’re now at a point where no easy choices remain. As the Times reports, an independent review team recently warned that we’re facing a capacity gap with the potential to “threaten life and property”, perhaps as early as 2015.

How did we reach this point? Clearly there is enough blame to go around. Austere federal budgets are blamed by some for the delays. But, according to independent reviews, a long history of program dysfunction is also at fault. For fishermen directly impacted by Sandy, the prospect of less accurate forecasting when future hurricanes strike will be a difficult pill to swallow. But a second source of concern should be the potential for satellite program challenges at NOAA to consume the agency, and jeopardize the effectiveness of NOAA’s “wet side” performance.

For many years, ocean advocates have been concerned that ballooning satellite costs could force funding cuts in ocean-related programs. Those concerns were realized in the FY13 funding request, and are now playing out on Capitol Hill. In this austere fiscal environment, efforts to squeeze additional funding to the satellite program from other parts of the agency are likely to continue. And that could well mean further curtailing federal investments that are vital to the health and productivity of our nation’s fisheries.

Addressing the enormous challenges facing the satellite program must be a national priority. And, critically, dedicated appropriations must be provided by Congress to get the job done. Otherwise, we face the prospect of a cash-strapped agency under enormous political pressure raiding entirely separate programs that happen to coexist under the NOAA umbrella. That could have dire consequences.

Sandy is the latest wakeup call for Congress and the administration to do whatever it takes to prevent or minimize the climate satellite gap. However, diverting precious pennies that are essential to the health of our ocean and the productivity of our nation’s fisheries won’t fix the mess, and could very well create another. For the fishermen, coastal communities and consumers who depend on healthy wild ocean fisheries — and for all Americans who rely on precise weather forecasting — urgently prioritizing and separately funding climate satellites is the only viable choice.

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.