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’.

Well that’s not what I heard…she said WHAT about menhaden?

Ahh, the public process. That sacrosanct American tradition of deciding what the hell to do by gathering in a meeting hall, drinking bad coffee and boring each other to tears . It wouldn’t be the same without the escalating op ed and editorial wars leading up to a decision, as all the players start to get their last arguments in.

Want to know the he said/she said about menhaden before tomorrow’s showdown? I’ll do my best to keep this updated as the opinions, blog posts and editorials come rolling in. Let me know if I missed any.

Basic meeting information

Webinar access to the meeting

The Agenda for the meeting


A timeline of Atlantic menhaden management

News articles

A vote on menhaden could ripple along the Atlantic [Daily Press]

Fisheries panel to rule on menhaden [Baltimore Sun]

PolitiFact Rhode Island fact check Pew Environment Group says the Atlantic menhaden population has declined by 90 percent in recent years [PolitiFact Rhode Island]

Regulators to vote on menhaden catch limits [AP via Virginia Pilot]

Menhaden Defenders want big turnout [Asbury Park Press]

Showdown looms on menhaden harvest [Capital City Gazette]

Record profits in menhaden as management battle brews [Daily Press – behind paywall]

Battle brews over small, vital fish [New York Times Green blog]

Small fish, huge role [Delmarva Now]

Big vote on small fish [CT News Junkie]

Longer features

Omega Protein hiring hundreds of foreign workers boasting jobs in the US  [The Public Trust Project]

The oiliest catch [Conservation Magazine]

Op eds, blog posts, and editorials

Bruce Franklin, author of the The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden catch limits vital to ecosystem, economy [Asbury Park Press]

Pew’s Lee Crocket: The Bottom Line: Big turnout for little menhaden [National Geographic]

Channel Fish Co. of Boston: Menhaden fishery needs reasonable – not drastic-action [New Bedford Standard Times]

Peter Baker of Pew responds to Channel Fish Co., says Strong action on menhaden best for coastal ecology, economy [New Bedford Standard Times]

Channel Fish Co. of Boston again: Environmentalist’s evidence on menhaden self generated [New Bedford Standard Times]

Matt Wuerker’s visual representation of the situation in an editorial cartoon [Politico]

Fly & Light Tackle Angler: Historic vote this week could determine future of Atlantic fishing [Orvis News]

Monty Deihl, Omega Protein’s fishing operations director: Menhaden not overfished, not endangered [Fredricksburg Freelance Star]

Citizen Vince Staley disagrees: Save the menhaden today or lose jobs tomorrow [Fredricksburg Freelance Star]

Jim Brewer, columnist for the Charlottesville Daily Progress: Save the crabs and menhaden [Daily Progress]

National Aquarium Blog: A crucial moment for most important fish in the sea [National Aquarium]

Record numbers ask for menhaden protection [Sun Journal New Bern]


[Updated 12/14/12 10:00 am EST]

DeMint resignation is a big deal for fish

The DC political world is atwitter today with news that Senator Jim DeMint will exit the Senate next month to lead the Heritage Foundation. This is a huge development — not only for political conservatives, but also for fish geeks.

Jim DeMint was in line to succeed Texan Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as Ranking Member on the powerful Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Accordingly, he would have joined Alaska’s Mark Begich atop the panel with oversight of the Department of Commerce, including NOAA.

There was real disquiet among DC ocean types about what that would have meant: not because of Senator DeMint’s prominent fiscal and social conservatism, but because of his institutional tactics and approach to procedure. DeMint would have been the Senate’s first tea party chairman, and it was widely anticipated that he’d employ the same stonewalling tactics he’s used repeatedly since joining the Senate in his new role. Republican committee staff, most expected, would completely turn over. And a Senate committee with a long history of bipartisan action, many feared, would become ineffectual — potentially for the next six years.

With today’s announcement, that threat recedes. Although positions are not yet confirmed for next Congress, Senator John Thune (R-SD) is likely to be the new Ranking Member. He is a conservative Republican, but he’s no iconoclast. For those who want to see meaningful and functional oversight of NOAA in the years to come, The Heritage Foundation’s gain is also ours.

Happy election day!

Well, it’s finally here. After countless hours of electioneering and over a billion dollars spent by candidates fishing for your votes, it all comes down to today.

Here at FishHQ we don’t have a partisan preference, and we’re not endorsing either aspirant for the White House. First and foremost, that’s because issues in fisheries almost invariably transcend partisan lines. Check out what I wrote whilst attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa back in August for why we believe that when it comes to fisheries, party designation doesn’t mean a whole lot.

But that isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t consider fisheries when you vote. There are some candidates who are champions on Capitol Hill, and others who have worked consistently against the interests of commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. We urge you to research the candidates before casting your ballot. One useful tool for recreational anglers may be Keep America Fishing’s presidential candidate questionnaire, which you can check out on their website. Alternatively, you can take some inspiration from the views of other hunters and anglers, gauged recently by Chesapeake Beach Consulting. Or, perhaps you can just follow the lead of Legal Seafood, whose presidential straw poll of diners has had Obama supporters ordering the mahi-mahi and Romney partisans opting for the pan-seared cod. Results will be released today, and we’re betting they’ll be analysed more thoroughly than the AP exit polls….

Voters won’t just be choosing candidates in the voting booth today. Those animated about the potential for GMO salmon to be approved for human consumption will be closely watching the results of Proposition 37 in California. Ocean Conservancy’s George Leonard has been an active supporter of the ballot initiative, and his take for National Geographic is worth reading. Ezra Klein also has an “everything you need to know” on Prop 37 for the Washington Post. Across the border in Oregon an initiative to ban non-tribal commercial salmon fishing with gillnets in the Columbia River will be decided today.

We’ll be analysing the results closely tonight, and sharing our perspectives on the outcome in the coming days. You can look to FishHQ to have the most thorough and insightful analysis of what the results will mean for fisheries in the 113th Congress and over the next four years.

Menhaden’s moment of truth

It’s crunch-time in the years-long battle to save what many people call the most important fish in the sea: Atlantic menhaden.

Anecdotal accounts of this odd oily fish indicate that they once swarmed up and down the east coast in huge schools and in numbers unimaginable to us today. Even more recently, scientific studies have shown that menhaden have declined 86% in the last 25 years, and that they have been exploited at too high a rate for at least 50 years. Half a century!

These fish used to be the main food for dozens of popular food and game fish like striper and bluefish. They’re not widely know as good eatin’, although I have a neighbor named Cornbread who swears by menhaden and mayonnaise sandwiches. No joke. He says everybody used to eat them because they were so abundant and easy to catch.  Cornbread’s culinary proclivities aside, these forage fish are an integral part of the marine ecosystem, transforming the plants they eat into a moving fish feast.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, the problem is that Cornbread can’t go out and catch the filling for his sandwiches like he used to. And more importantly, critical recreational populations like stripers are being starved by menhaden’s declining numbers. Or to answer the question in another way, the problem is big, it’s powerful, and it has a name: it’s Omega Protein Inc.

Omega and its shareholders make a lot of money turning menhaden into lipstick, swine feed, and fish oil. For years, as recreational fishermen and local communities observed signs to the contrary, Omega claimed that the fishery was in fabulous shape. So, no regulations necessary, right?  When a 2010 assessment once again proved their optimism to be unfounded, Omega wasn’t about to realign their business operations to the reality on the water. Instead, they hired scientists and lobbyists to influence, cajole, and filibuster the science-based management process.

But something inspiring has happened in response. A grassroots movement led by recreational anglers has emerged, opposing Omega’s efforts to dictate the management of menhaden to serve its own ends. Fishermen from all over the country have led a massive push to return the menhaden fishery to a sustainable level, while also accounting for the needs of predator species like striped bass.

The fight has been decades-long, and has not been easy for those who have stuck through it. But finally, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. In December the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will finalize new rules for the menhaden fishery. Specifically, the Commission is voting on Amendment 2 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden. If adopted, the plan could reduce the quota by up to 50% (to make up for the 50 years we’ve been exploiting it?), leaving more menhaden in the water for the many other fish stocks that like to eat it.

Now is the time to raise your voice with thousands of other anglers, seafood lovers, and coastal residents who value fish, fishing and healthy oceans. You have until November 16 to submit public comments, which are critical in countering Omega Protein’s lobbying efforts. Act now and tell the Commission to protect Atlantic menhaden, and do your part to conserve the most important fish in the sea.

And the moral is…it’s time for a different kind of fish story

Hey, wanna talk about government and moral values? Oh, no, hey, come back…it’ll be fun, seriously.

We spend most of our time here on FishHQ talking about fisheries, fishermen, and occasionally the fish themselves. In the few weeks since we launched, we’ve celebrated some successes (billfish, record US catch) and highlighted obstacles to healthy wild ocean fisheries (tar balls, politicians). We’ve also pulled back a little from the day-to-day and explored a little what this is really about (hint: it’s not just the fish…).

In the wider world, beyond all the simplistic rhetoric on the campaign trail, some Americans are moving beyond the stale ‘big government vs. small government’ questions, and considering what the spectrum of effective government activity really is. Very few of those conversations are about fish; but that doesn’t mean we fish wonks shouldn’t pay attention. Because questions about the legitimate reach of government go to the heart of how we manage our fisheries and, by extension, what our coastal communities look like. These are conversations about equality, rights, authority, freedom, justice and what we as members of this society are entitled to. In short, what the hell the Founding Fathers meant by ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Although we may not think about fisheries management in these terms very often, our underlying assumptions about what our society should look like shade the much more mundane, specific questions of who has the right to fish how much and where. Environmentalists and fishermen are held up as being at odds with each other so much that it’s become a stereotype. But really fishermen are part of a long history of conservation in the US—both as sportsmen in the early days and later as commercial fishermen who realized that they would fish themselves right out of business if they didn’t put some limits in place. As one of our fishing members pointed out to me when I first started working at the Network: “most of us understand the need for some regulation. It’s like playing football: it wouldn’t be very fun if there were no rules and everyone was just running all over the place randomly with no clue what to do. The rules make the game.” (Exception to this rule: Calvinball).

It’s an important time for fisheries. We’ve finally implemented science-based catch limits for all federally managed fisheries, which Congress required us to do when they reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006. More fisheries were declared rebuilt in 2011 than in any other single year since we started counting, and we are finally winning the fight against overfishing. But there are also a lot of valid concerns about our fisheries—both about how they’re being managed, and other external factors that will affect them such as ocean acidification and pollution. To be sure, we have some tough conversations ahead. But the underlying principles upon which those conversations are based matters.

In his groundbreaking work on morality and political values, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out core moral pillars upon which most of our political beliefs are grounded. He then points out how our political beliefs are an amalgamation of where we stand on these moral pillars. His work is well worth delving into, but the conclusion he reaches again and again is that we all share values across a moral spectrum, and that policy decisions that make sense flow from dialogues that acknowledge these common moral pillars. Such decisions are superior to ones reached when one side out-argues the other.

Of course, attempts to out-argue—or out-scream—your opponents are ubiquitous in fisheries. And for some extremists, opposition to any kind of regulation is most easily couched in simplistic terms that reference a “right to fish”. In one sense, this line of engagement speaks to widespread angler opinions: access to fishing is one of their primary concerns. But the funny thing is, when asked to rank the factors that could influence fishing access, the majority of anglers cited residential and commercial development of coastal areas as the top threat to access, not excessive regulation. Other concerns are poor management of access, disability access, and poor signage. Hardly the work of an international conspiracy, as some at fringe groups would have you believe. Portraying it as such is fear mongering, and it’s taking us in the wrong direction.

The truth is, we can talk about access or competing ocean uses without playing to people’s fears. Indeed, the more you consider the values underlying the perspectives of anglers and environmentalists, the more you start tapping into the deeply held positive values that, as Professor Haidt points out, we largely share. Stakeholders of all stripes can relate to the equity dimensions of access to local fishing spots. And the desire for inter-generational equity—the idea that future generations should be able to enjoy a world with healthy wild ocean fisheries—is universal. Surveys show that anglers value time spent fishing as a way to connect with family and friends—something we can all relate to. Other fishermen enjoy the sport for the chance to enjoy the sanctity of nature, tapping into our spiritual human needs. After all, a profound respect for nature—both its beauty and its functionality, is what led many environmentalists and fishermen to their respective professions in the first place. We might come to this respect from different places; but once we’re there it’s a much better starting point for a conversation on how we manage it than a face-off of two mobs.

Our values and convictions are deeply held, and hard to put aside—whether we’re debating education, health-care, the economy, or fisheries. And sometimes they will conflict. But being able to step outside the stereotypes and hear each other where it counts is essential if we’re to move forward to a prosperous fishing future—instead of back. Also, I bet it will result in some really good fishing.

The slander and straw men of the RFA, part 1

Photo credit: flickr user gardo CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Most of us who work in the fisheries world long ago settled into the habit of comfortably tuning out the fiction-based broodings of Recreational Fishing Alliance Managing Director Jim Hutchinson. With monotonous predictability his writing features a healthy dose of conspiracy theories centered around ‘Big Green’—a cabal of corporate environmental NGOs turned evil—and a liberal sprinkling of libel targeting fishermen who have had the audacity to adopt a more rational worldview than him. Once you’ve read a couple of pieces of his nonsense, you weary of the experience and file them away, unread, somewhere between the Horror and Fantasy genre folders.

Before we toss aside this week’s tawdry Hutchinson hatchet job, however, let’s pause briefly. The internet is full of drivel like this, most not worthy of a moment’s thought. But this piece of carefully tailored deception demands a response, for two reasons. First, it contains assertions that are becoming accepted wisdom among too many fishermen simply by force of repetition. Second, it speaks so clearly to the RFA leadership’s motives and MO that we should all take note.

Where to begin??

One has to resist the temptation to dive head-long into the mud and expose the truly eye-popping hypocrisy of the RFA’s national leadership—of all people—attempting to discredit fishermen with whom they disagree by playing the character card. Wow. Rather than go there, however, I want to call attention to the sheer lack of reason behind the rhetoric.

Let’s start by acknowledging that fisheries management is inherently complicated. It seeks to divide an invisible and difficult-to-quantify ‘pie’ between any number of stakeholders. And with the management approaches employed during the second half of the twentieth century having all too often failed, competing ideas about alternative management techniques have emerged.

The catch shares straw man

That’s the context for the emergence of catch shares as an alternative management tool—and it’s a major piece of conspiracy fodder for Mr. Hutchinson:

In recent years … extremist non-government organizations like Pew Environment Group (PEW) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have invested heavily in a cap and trade fisheries program. … .The PEW/EDF fisheries ownership plot [is] breaking down the barrier between the commercial and recreational sectors in a winner-take-all battle over resource allocation.

Good on a bumper sticker, perhaps. But let’s be straight: there is no ‘Big Green’ conspiracy on catch shares—more like a loose confederation of warring tribes. Here’s what’s actually going on:

  • EDF has been a strong proponent of catch share management for years, arguing that it’s a proven and durable tool with which to build sustainable fisheries. You can dive into some of the scientific and policy literature that EDF would contend proves their point by checking out their Catch Share Design Manual. Now, whatever you think of EDF or their catch shares work — and there is no shortage of strongly-held views — no one can seriously contend that they’re in this line of work due to some nefarious motive. They’re in it because they believe that catch share programs work. Simple as that.
  • The Pew Environment Group, by contrast, has adopted a more skeptical posture towards catch share management — for which you can get a sense by reading their 2009 report, Design Matters. In that report, after acknowledging that catch shares can be a “viable tool”, but making clear that they are “not a cure-all for fisheries management problems and should not be considered an end unto themselves”, the Pew authors declare catch shares “one of a number of possible tools” councils can employ. The concluding nut graph reiterates that in those instances where managers feel that catch share systems afford value, such programs: “must include effective and explicit policies that address overfishing, bycatch and habitat protection. They should also contain regulations to protect the health and resilience of the marine ecosystems that sustain productive fisheries. Finally, catch shares should also accommodate recreational anglers and diverse community-based fleets and crew that are the heart and soul of a working waterfront.”

Whoa. I can only imagine how those cautiously-calibrated and somewhat skeptical words from Pew must have been greeted at RFA high command. “Quick Jimmy! Fetch the rake! The first shots in the winner-take-all PEW/EDF ownership plot have been fired!”

Back to reality

The truth is, Mr. Hutchinson’s blog post rails against catch shares for a simple reason: to avoid talking about the real issues that emerged around the House Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Panama City. Fishermen in the Gulf — irrespective of their views on catch shares — spoke out en mass against Florida Panhandle Congressman Steve Southerland. And they did it for one simple reason: because he’s abjectly failing to do his job and represent them. They worry he’s more interested in political games than in their fishing futures. They fret he’ll take their fisheries back to the bad old days, before having even mastered his brief. And they are offended by his refusal to meet with or listen to many of them, choosing instead to shoot from the hip.

Funnily enough, these are all core character traits upon which the RFA national leadership evidently put a premium. Little wonder, then, that with Mr. Southerland under siege back home in Florida for working to dismantle science-based management of our nation’s fisheries, it’s a poison pen from New Jersey that rises to his defense.