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’.

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.

A status quo election? Not for fisheries

Since the moment polls started closing last night, DC types of all political persuasions have been wading obsessively through the Election Day returns. First and foremost, the angst was over whether preferred candidates had won. Beyond that, folks have been madly trying to read the tea leaves on how the political and public policy landscape has been altered. Confession time: I’ve been one of them.

In the coming days I’ll be sharing some of my conclusions with FishHQ readers who may be interested in what the election is likely to mean for fisheries. And a constant theme in those posts will be how significant the implications of this election have already been for the fisheries world — and how much is likely to change in its aftermath.

One popular refrain last night and this morning is that this was a status quo election, and at a superficial level that’s true: President Obama has won reelection; the Senate majority has been retained by the Democrats; and Republicans will continue to control the House. But to suggest a status quo outcome in any deeper sense would be, in my view, very wrong-headed. The reality is, when it comes to many of the most important dynamics that have shaped Washington over the last two years, this is another change election. And when it comes to fisheries specifically, a lot of key chess pieces are about to move.

I’ll be examining those changes in detail in subsequent posts. But here are some quick morning-after takeaways:

  • Although the occupant of the White House hasn’t changed, we’ll see very significant turnover in key executive branch personnel — including, in all likelihood, at the cabinet level (Commerce Secretary) and in agency leadership (NOAA Administrator).
  • Some of the most prominent and influential congressional voices on fisheries will be packing their bags after choosing to retire or suffering electoral defeat. Institutional knowledge on Capitol Hill is being lost, while opportunities to reshape the debate are being created.
  • The transformation of the New England congressional delegation to a one-party enclave is now largely complete. The triumph of Democrats over Republicans in critical House and Senate races will have significant implications for how fisheries politics plays out in this vital region.
  • With all sides focused on avoiding the fiscal cliff, and daunting federal budget realities looming, the resources that enable the information infrastructure upon which our fisheries management system relies are set to come under even greater pressure.

As you absorb the implications of last night’s results, we hope you’ll tune out the cable chatter from time to time, and instead tune in to FishHQ. We’ll strive to bring you the best insight and analysis on what it all means.

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.

Panhandle smackdown

Of all the extraordinary moments in today’s storm-before-the-storm House Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Panama City FL, one stood out as capturing the day best. Dr. Richard Merrick—one of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s most senior officials—delivered serious and thoughtful testimony on the state of our fisheries. And staring back at him was an empty chair and a nameplate inscribed with the name of hearing “host” Congressman Steve Southerland.

On the one hand: no big deal, right? In Washington DC Members of Congress slip in and out of hearing rooms all the time. On the other hand: WTF??? Mr. Southerland inveighs against NOAA at every opportunity he gets. And he’s always searching out a new soapbox from which to demand “answers” of the Agency on items of alleged concern to his Florida panhandle fishing constituents. He explained in his opening statement today that he’d worked for over a year to bring the hearing to his District. He proudly proclaimed it as a “promise kept”. Yet when NMFS dispatched its Chief Scientist 1,000 miles into the path of an incoming hurricane to spend his Saturday trying to address Mr. Southerland’s amorphous concerns, the freshman apparently had better things to do for half of his five-minute testimony. You gotta be kidding….

Dr. Richard Merrick of the National Marine Fisheries Service delivers testimony to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings and … an empty chair.

Also in the “wow, twelve years working with Congress and I’ve never seen anything like it before” category: the outpouring of anger from Gulf fishermen against Congressman Southerland’s extremist views on our nation’s fisheries and oceans. Over 100 people packed the hearing room in Panama City, and sentiment ran overwhelmingly against the local Member’s record, which has seen him taking his marching orders on fisheries from a fringe element of Charter Boat Captains in his home town. Think about that for a moment: You work for over a year to bring a fisheries hearing to your hometown, and when you finally pull it off the numbers run against you 9-1. Your simplistic applause lines fall flat with fishermen who expect a level of sophistication from elected officials who presume to lecture fishery managers and scientists on how to exploit a natural resource on which their livelihoods depend. A remarkable and sustained standing ovation went not to the hometown member but to lifelong Gulf of Mexico commercial fisherman Donny Waters who basically told Mr. Southerland to study up or butt the hell out. Captain Mike Jennings, one of the Gulf’s best Charter Boat Captains, told him to follow through on his small-government rhetoric and stop trying to micromanage our fisheries. #BAM

If you have a lazy three hours, all fisheries tragics really would do well to watch the hearing webcast in full. It should be posted here by the committee staff soon. Alternatively or additionally, why don’t you read what Gulf commercial fisherman Jim Clements wrote in the Panama City News Herald this week about why Congressman Southerland has become Ocean Enemy Number One. Or you could read Panama City commercial fisherman Russell Underwood, also writing for the “hometown paper”, on why he fears politicking rather than the interests of fishermen brought the congressional circus to town. Or you could read Alabama power-couple commercial fisherman David Walker and Charter Boat Captain Troy Frady tell readers of the Mobile-Press-Register about why their interest in a healthy fishery unites them in opposition to Mr. Southerland’s extremist approach. Or you could read lifelong Gulf private angler Tommy Warren’s piece in the Tallahassee Democrat on why Mr. Southerland’s “solutions” could take us back to the bad old overfishing days of old.

You probably get the idea.… Mr. Southerland thought he could score cheap political points by grandstanding on fisheries with easy applause lines about how we could all catch more fish if Big Bad Washington would just get off our backs. Instead, 18 months into his term in the United States House of Representatives, he’s found himself about as popular with the Gulf’s fishermen as Hurricane Isaac is right now with Republican National Convention organizers.

Stay tuned to FishHQ for updates on whether this week’s Panhandle Smackdown of Congress’s Ocean Enemy Number One knocks some sense into Mr. Southerland. Here’s hoping….