Fishermen rally for regulatory reform

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Gathering in the nation’s capital draws 2,000 industry workers and anglers hoping to change catch-limit rules

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About 2,000 recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as business owners who provide for these industries, gathered in Washington, D.C., on a cloudy March afternoon to call for reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Act and allow for more flexibility and better scientific methods when setting catch limits.

About two dozen politicians — Democrats and Republicans — took the stage near the U.S. Capitol to announce their support for the fishermen’s cause, saying they should be allowed to participate in their recreational activity or livelihood without bureaucratic interference and regulations that aren’t based on sound science.

“It’s out of control. What does it take to get fired at NOAA? When I held a hearing — one of the first hearings in Boston — I asked that important question, and I’m still waiting for an answer,” Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., said at the rally. “We need to have [NOAA administrator Jane] Lubchenco fired. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is about people. It’s about eating safe food. It’s providing good jobs. It’s about protecting the environment, and we need to work together.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., talked about bills they’ve sponsored calling for amending the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to extend the authorized time period for the rebuilding of certain overfished fisheries and for other purposes.

“Who knows best how to conserve our fishing stocks? It’s the hard-working people in the fishing industry, not some guy in some ivory tower doing faulty studies,” Schumer said. “You folks don’t want to deplete the stocks — we know that. But you also want to make a living, and that’s the balance that we seek to find here today. Today I am calling on Congress to begin hearings on Magnuson reform this year. I will be making a major push to see that happen. Not next year, not two years from now, but this year.”

Pallone noted that in New Jersey alone 50,000 jobs are directly related to fishing. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that in his state 77,000 people depend on the multibillion-dollar industry. U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said that in Florida the boating industry alone supports more than 200,000 jobs and has a total economic impact of $16.8 billion.

“To continue to go down this [path] is frankly going to ruin not only the fishing industry but the boating industry, every bait-and-tackle shop, every Wawa along the way,” Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said at the rally. “You don’t think about that type of stuff until it’s too late.”

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The fact that boating and fishing are so intertwined is what prompted New Jersey-based Viking Yachts to support the rally. “It goes back to the luxury tax days when Viking saw that when the government intervenes, the jobs get lost, and so from those days Viking has always been adamant about jobs,” said Peter Frederiksen, Viking’s director of communications, who spoke to Soundings Trade Only after the rally. “There’s fishing boats, there’s charterboats, there’s so many people involved in the fishing industry, but they need to be able to go fishing, and when they can’t go fishing then all of a sudden things start to erode, and the next thing you know jobs go out the window as well. Flexibility is paramount. We’re kind of inflexible about [the need] to be flexible.”

The Fish Hawks Saltwater Anglers Club of New Jersey also was well-represented at the rally, saying it hoped that the presence of all of fishing’s stakeholders will leave a lasting impression on Congress. “We’re the first line of defense for environmentalists. I’ve often thrown fish overboard I would die for,” club member Bill Westervelt says of the mischaracterization that fishermen are out to take all of the fish out of the oceans. “We’re just trying to have balanced fishing.”

Frederiksen likens it to the people who criticize boaters for polluting the water. “Who is more interested in clean water than the people who go boating? And yet people would say boats pollute,” he says. “Well, if it wasn’t for the people that go boating, there would be no money to keep the water clean.”

The other side

A few days before the rally, the Pew Environmental Group, part of the Pew Charitable Trust, put out a “fact sheet” that called for Congress to reject so-called flexibility bills “because they would derail years of hard work to end overfishing and rebuild depleted U.S. ocean fish populations through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.”

The organization says that 36 years after the law was enacted the country is turning a corner on ending overfishing and is rebuilding fish populations. “The National Marine Fisheries Service reports that 23 depleted stocks have been rebuilt since 2000. In addition, it has estimated that fully rebuilt U.S. fish populations would generate $216 billion in annual sales impacts and support 2.5 million full- and part-time U.S. jobs in commercial and recreational fisheries,” according to the statement.

“So-called flexibility bills — including H.R. 1646, the ‘American Angler Preservation Act’; H.R. 3061, the ‘Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011’; and S. 632, the ‘Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011’ — would undermine the bipartisan conservation provisions of the MSA by creating loopholes that could extend timelines indefinitely for rebuilding depleted fish populations,” the group says. “Doing so would raise fishing pressure on depleted populations while increasing the difficulty and cost of their recovery. These bills also would allow fishery managers to put short-term gains for a few ahead of the nation’s investment in healthy fish populations, which provide income and jobs for many.”

The bills, however, have strong bipartisan support from many of those who spoke at the rally.

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Pew says many regions across the country are beginning to reap the benefits of years of hard work to rebuild depleted fish stocks to healthy levels. For example, in the Mid-Atlantic, summer flounder was rebuilt in 2010, thanks to measures put in place to restore the once-depleted population, the group says.

“Bills such as H.R. 1646, H.R. 3061 and S. 632 would harm, not help, fishermen by weakening the very fish populations upon which their livelihoods depend,” according to the statement. “Congress should reject these bills and instead help fishermen by investing in data collection and analysis to improve fisheries management and by supporting targeted efforts to help U.S. fishermen make the transition to long-term sustainability.”

But those who are out there fishing say that isn’t the case at all. For example, Frederiksen notes, you’re no longer allowed to catch spiny dogfish, but that fish will eat everything “it gets its jaws around.”

“They’re killing fish stocks and, in essence, they’re protecting one species at the expense of 12 other ones,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense. They just don’t get it.”

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., told those at the rally, “How fast fish have sex is not, in my judgment, a major environmental principle, and that’s what we’re talking about — the rate at which fish reproduce. Our complaint is the law is too rigid. Well, who better to administer a rigid law than one of the most rigid people I have ever seen,” Frank said of NOAA’s Lubchenco. “She is sadly more comfortable with rigidity than anybody ought to be. But I think the time has come to let them both go.”

What’s next?

Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, one of the rally organizers, says the event was an “overwhelming success,” but the work won’t end there. “We have recognition now from some of the most powerful people in leadership that Magnuson needs flexibility and that they’re willing to work and make this happen for us,” said Donofrio, who also spoke to Soundings Trade Only after the event. “This is a stunning achievement from 2010’s rally. We were there, we asked for Magnuson reform and two years later — and you know the way Congress works; it’s a snail’s pace — we have eight Magnuson bills out there right now and this much interest from the leadership. We’re being very effective at what we do, despite being called a fringe group by others.”

Although the number of people who attended the rally was down from 2010, Donofrio attributes that to the rise in gas prices and the economy rather than a lack of interest. The next step, he says, is to work on getting one of the House bills out of committee.

“If Congress didn’t hear us after two rallies, then we might as well just forget the whole thing,” Donofrio says. “I think the next move will be, if nothing gets fixed, we’ll do our own tea party, and I’m not talking about the Tea Party, the political group. I’m talking about a real tea party, where we just don’t obey laws that are arbitrary in nature and not criminal. They’re administrative laws that don’t allow us to fish on healthy fish.

“I don’t want it to get to that, but they’re going to force fishermen to either be criminals or go out of business,” he says. “We don’t want that, and I think Congress got that message.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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