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 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.

Fishermen weather the storm

Visualization of Hurricane Sandy’s widespread impact; credit: NOAA

Note: current updates are being made at the bottom of this post as we find them. Please add yours in the comments!

First and foremost, we hope all of you managed to stay safe during Hurricane Sandy, wherever it hit you, and whatever your moniker of choice ended up being. Bonus points if you stayed warm and dry. The fish can head to deep water, and the birds can fly on through, but those of us with neither fins nor feathers batten down the hatches, stock the cupboards and hunker down until the storm passes. Fishing news from this coast slowed to a near stop, although the news that was being made will affect us all for a good time to come.

In Rhode Island, fishermen prepared their boats as best they could. Some fishermen were determined to catch that last fish, warnings be damned. Sandy took to New Jersey late afternoon Monday, doing significant damage to coastal homes and businesses. Fishing piers up and down the coast were hit hard, with news that the Ocean City, Maryland fishing pier had been destroyed circulating as early as Monday mid-day. Impact reports are still rolling in, and there are ultimately too many stories to list here, but CBS News has a state by state impact report here.

Away from the front lines of the storm, debates are raging about where Frankenstorm came from, how it’s related to climate change and what other measures we could have taken to prepare for it (Paul Greenberg says: more oysters). One conversation of note is the renewed concern that’s circulating about gaps in the federal budget that would have funded the satellites that allow us to track this storm with such accuracy. We are already facing holes in satellite coverage as a result of austerity cuts to NOAA’s budget, and although the administration has tried to plug the hole by shifting funds from other programs (including fisheries), this is a major reminder of how appropriations—a process that often plays out as a closed-door, abstract game for the wonkiest of wonks—translates into real life impacts. We’ve worked very closely on NOAA’s budget here at the Network, and will come back to that soon. The takeaway right now is that this matters.

In other storm related fish news, fresh fish will likely be in short supply around the country thanks to the fact that 600 miles of coastline was being battered by unfishable conditions. If you’re in Chatham, you can go straight to the source though; the Cape Cod Hook and Line Fishermen’s Association still has power and plenty of oysters for their Meet the Fleet event. Now that’s how to beat cabin fever.

We’re also keeping an eye on scheduled meetings and events that have been disrupted by Sandy and have been postponed or canceled. Of particular note: the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission has postponed some menhaden hearings along the coast. Their press release is here, and the Herring Alliance has a helpful list of which meetings have been postponed or rescheduled.

Let us know if we’ve missed any important fishing related storm news in the comments—we’ll also update as we find more.

[Update 10/31/12 5:40 p.m.]

Richard Gaines gives a rundown of the storm’s impact on the fishing industry, but not without a few barbs out for the government. His sources speak largely of a static market for fish due to widespread transportation system shut-down.

Seafoodnews.com reports that the port of New York still does not have power. [subscription required]

This story points to raw and partially treated sewage that spilled into rivers and estuaries along the coast as a result of the storm. Virginia has suspended shellfish harvesting in the Chesapeake as a result.

And Climate Central has a great roundup of all the places the web is talking about Sandy.

[Update 11/1/12 12:40  pm]

A swordfish crew from New Bedford got swept up in Hurricane Sandy while at sea; they have made safe landing in Shelbourne, Nova Scotia. They are reported to be exhausted but alive. Significant damage was done to their boat.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources is calling the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay “less than expected“.

The Savannah Morning news offers a forecast of how Sandy will affect local fishing in Georgia.

[Update 11/2/12 11:12  a.m.]

National Geographic has posted a write-up on the recovery of fishing communities after hurricanes, including a look at potential disaster declarations and their history in the Mid-Atlantic.

Asbury Park Press predicts that no one will be fishing the Jersey coastline anytime soon. Harbors are destroyed and it may take a while for fish to come back after the storm.

Long Island Newsday features similar devastation to the Long Island fishing community.

More on how Sandy is impacting seafood supply and demand, including low demand due to continued wide-spread power outages, and difficultly in the supply chain.

We have word from a longtime Network friend and New Jersey member that he and family are safe, although they suffered significant damage to their home of many years. Our hearts are with them and all the others coping with loss.