By Ted Venker
Coastal Conservation Association
No one has ever accused the federal fisheries management process of being too transparent. It is a Byzantine world of statistics, biology and, the murkiest ingredient of all, politics. It is a process that often yields confounding results.
Some of the most perplexing results ever seen in this arena are on the horizon, as the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires NOAA Fisheries to set annual catch limits on every stock of fish under management by Dec. 31, 2011. The agency is a long, long way from having science on all those stocks, meaning that it is preparing to set a slew of catch limits based on what amounts to a SWAG – a scientific wild ass guess.
The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs acknowledged that the situation is ludicrous. It held an oversight hearing this week entitled, “NOAA’s Fishery Science: Is the Lack of Basic Science Costing Jobs?” which is a very telling label for a hearing. Loosely translated, it means that legislators realize that managing public resources by SWAG has real-world ramifications and, to their credit, they attempted to find what most of us involved in fisheries management are seeking: Clarity. A straight answer. Common sense.
The Committee asked a diverse group of individuals to share their views and assess the impact of NOAA Fisheries’ distinct lack of science on the vast majority of stocks it manages. It was a unique opportunity. Congress was listening. It was a chance for parties to set the record straight and work toward a solution, and that doesn’t come along very often. But just when you thought the water was clearing, the tide kicked up more mud.
During the hearing, an outgoing member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, George Geiger, referred to himself as a leader of Coastal Conservation Association as he attacked HR 2304, the Fishery Science Improvement Act, in his testimony. HR 2304 is a bill sponsored by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) that, among other provisions, states that if the agency has not assessed a stock of fish in the last five years and there is no indication that overfishing is occurring, the agency is not required to set an annual catch limit.
CCA and the other leading marine conservation organizations in the country have thrown their support behind Rep. Wittman’s bill as a common-sense remedy to NOAA Fisheries ongoing science shortcomings. The bill is opposed, however, by most of the environmental community, which insists that a hodgepodge of partial bits of information that perhaps add up to an informed guess is somehow good enough to manage our marine resources. No other wildlife resource management agency operates that way, but damn the consequences and full speed ahead for marine resources, these groups say.
Mr. Geiger seems to believe that too, but strangely decided to cloud his affiliations and repeatedly referenced his leadership role in CCA Florida, giving Congress the impression that he was speaking for CCA despite his letter of resignation from CCA almost two years ago.
It wasn’t a passing reference – he mentioned it more than a few times in his written testimony and in his oral testimony. But he never mentioned his abrupt departure from CCA. To what purpose? To create clarity? No, if that was the case he would have articulated the philosophical differences that caused him to leave the organization in October of 2009.
No one in CCA asked Mr. Geiger to testify on our behalf. Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, carried the message for CCA as well as for American Sportfishing Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, International Game Fish Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association and The Billfish Foundation.
It remains unclear who Mr. Geiger was representing. We know it wasn’t CCA – Jeff Angers was doing that. Was it Pew? His testimony certainly aligns with their opinion on the bill. Has Pew’s credibility dropped so low that it has to rely on someone who is apparently not connected with them, in this case an ex-member of CCA, in order to have its testimony presented? Why can’t Pew represent itself at a hearing?
It appears that while anglers are calling for clarity, some other groups are content to play a shell game. Whatever game was being played, it was hard to listen to Mr. Geiger or read his testimony without concluding that he was suggesting that he represented CCA. That kind of obfuscation is similar to the questionable tactics employed by environmental groups that have also attacked HR 2304 in dramatic fashion.
The Ocean Conservancy essentially labeled supporters of the bill – which has more than two dozen bipartisan co-sponsors and the support of the 300-member-strong Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus – as pro-extinction. The Natural Resources Defense Council breathlessly said HR 2304 would “gut the nation’s fisheries law.”
A bill that requires a stock assessment to set an annual catch limit for a stock of fish stands to gut the nation’s fisheries law? Gut?!
Rhetoric like that muddies every discussion on federal fisheries management.
The Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs is to be commended for its efforts to seek solutions for NOAA Fisheries’ inability to implement the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act the way Congress envisioned in 2006. Unfortunately, at a time when everyone – Congress, anglers, commercial fishermen, the Councils, NOAA – sees the need to address those problems, there are still some who find it better to muddy the water than seek the truth.