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’.

In the land of cod, not all is as it should be

original photo credit: NOAA

Original photo credit: NOAA

What: Atlantic cod vs. Pacific cod

Where: Boston, Massachusetts

How: Many restaurants and markets in the Boston area are mislabeling seafood (still), but some are blaming the supply chain for their mislabeled menu items.

The Story: The Boston Globe conducted an investigation into seafood sold at Boston area restaurants and markets for the second year in a row, visiting many of the restaurants they tested last year in their award-winning investigation into seafood mislabeling. Even after being called out for mislabeling in last year, many of the restaurants tested this time around were repeat offenders. Out of the 76 samples taken, 58 were found to be mislabeled. In most cases, less expensive fish is being substituted for more costly species, and much of the substitution that takes place uses imported fish.

In several examples, fish being marketed as locally caught Atlantic cod was actually previously-frozen Pacific cod, which many people find less appetizing, and which sells for half the price. Some of the retailers blamed their seafood supplier for the mislabeling, and sent the Globe’s reporters hunting down the murky seafood supply chain looking for answers–and responsibility. Some restaurants did take the results seriously and promised to change their practices and menus, whereas others got defensive. The restaurant manager at Ken’s Steak House was quoted saying, “We’re too busy to deal with such silliness.”

Seafood mislabeling is far from silly, no matter how busy the staff at Boston restaurants may be. As the Globe’s report suggested, mislabeling may stem from different motivations, from trying to maximize profit, wanting to be seen providing a constant supply of hard-to-get seafood, or in response to customer preferences for “local” catch. But lying about where that fish was caught isn’t just a rip off for consumers; it distorts reality for seafood consumers, who might be unaware that their local favorite is in dire straits if it keeps showing up in today’s specials. We shouldn’t be surprised that it may be hard to find fresh Atlantic cod on the East Coast;  Atlantic cod has been overfished for generations, and changing ocean conditions further hamper population growth. Fishermen are dealing with difficult cuts in their quotas, and consumers should know about it.

What We Can Do: With all of the seafood fraud happening in the US and around the world today, the Globe raises a good question: who is to blame? In the end, a poorly regulated seafood industry is the real culprit. Fishermen, retailers, and consumers would all benefit from seafood traceability, which would bring much needed transparency to the seafood supply chain so we can stop pointing fingers, and get back to eating our delicious, well labeled fish.

Should the government interfere with New England’s fishing fleet?

It’s an election year, in case you’ve been in the hold of a boat for nine months.  One of the debates I hear over and over again is whether no government or very little government is better. Before you say “no government“, and reapply the tape to your Ron Paul poster, let’s remember how government subsidies helped to build the fishing industry in New England, and let’s talk about how the government is now being asked to step in again to dismantle part of the fishing fleet.

New England lawmakers are said to be mulling some emergency relief for the embattled New England groundfish fleet. Ask any northeastern fisherman and they’ll shake their head and tell you that things are not right. And it boils down to this simple fact: there aren’t enough fish for the number of boats out there. This sucks. Big time.

The reason for this is complex (surprise, surprise) and partly a mystery. For starters, the ocean ecosystem off the northeast may be shifting due to nearly half a millennium of fishing, climate change and Cod knows what other global and local forces.  But this isn’t the only problem facing the fleet.

After World War II, the United States was falling behind in the fishing game and foreign vessels were catching more fish offshore than domestic fishermen. The government responded, starting in the 1950s, with subsidies to the fishing industry. In 1976 the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act established the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, in large part to give domestic fishermen preferential access to the nation’s rich fishery resource.  These subsidy programs (including financing for boat-building, tax-less gas, and new markets), plus a bat-sh#@-crazy optimism on the inexhaustible supply of fish out there resulted in just enough boats for the good times, but way too many boats for today.

Now, since the government helped to create this “overcapacity”, it can help undo it, right? This is an area of hot debate. As I argued in my post from last week, whether we should have a permit or a boat buy-back system, and how we should design said buy-back program, would depend entirely on the vision we have  for the future of New England fisheries.  If the government or other fishermen buy up permits from fishermen who want to get out of the fishery, do the fish those permits would have caught still get caught, or are they put aside?  Would this result in the well-heeled corporate fishing conglomerates coming out as winners at the expense of the small-scale fisherman?  Would the program actually help with overcapitalization, or exacerbate existing problems?  Would such a program result in a long-term benefit to the ecosystem? What about the socio-economic landscape?

As government and the public mull the value of a buy-back program in New England, these questions need to be answered. The trade-offs we face need to be well understood before the government “helps” again, and it would be a lot easier to find the “right” balance of ecological, economic and social benefits if we had a common vision in mind.

OK, now you can fix your Ron Paul poster. And once you’re done with that, focus hard on Capitol Hill. The prospects of a New England buyback gaining momentum are real. The likelihood of other regions positioning themselves to receive funds as part of any package? Also very real. The danger that a rushed injection of federal dollars will be a missed opportunity to, in Mike Conathan’s words, “hit the reset button” — in New England and elsewhere? Depressingly real. If that mistake is to be avoided, the time for action is now.