President Trump’s “Exciting New Attitude Toward Fishery Management”


by Ted Williams

“Donald J. Trump believes there needs to be a Roosevelt Reboot… A Trump administration will have avid sportsmen having a voice and seat at the table in all issues regarding land, water, and wildlife…. President Trump will instruct USFWS policy to use good science… Our Public Lands and water…will always remain public and open.” I found all this and more on the website of “Sportsmen for Trump,” still active in 2018.

Now for some fact checking. Let’s limit it to what Trump has done for anglers in just his first year in office: revocation of the “stream protection rule” that had prevented mining companies from using streams for waste disposal; revocation of the rule requiring mining companies to set aside money to clean up their toxic messes (between 2010 and 2014 EPA spent $1.1 billion dealing with pollution from abandoned mines. And in 2015 the inactive Gold King mine in Colorado belched three million gallons of toxic waste into rivers in three states); revocation of the “Clean Water Rule” (all major streams will continue to be protected; but it will be perfectly okay to foul some of their tributaries); revocation of the ban on oil drilling in ecologically sensitive offshore habitats.

With the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 Congress established a 200-mile limit, kicked out most of the foreign fishing fleet and gave commercial fishermen a “stake in their own future.” It sounded so progressive, so Jeffersonian, so flexible. But somehow assigning the job of regulating to those who required regulation didn’t work. It was as if Congress had recruited grade schoolers to write their own curriculum. On all three coasts the result was day-long cookies and milk. So in 1996 Congress strengthened the act, outlawing overfishing.

A mantra from fishermen, both commercial and recreational, has been: Don’t listen to the scientists; we see lots of fish in areas they claim are depleted. We depend on fish, so let us kill more now. That is precisely what recreational red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico told Trump’s Department of Commerce director Wilbur Ross.

Accordingly, Ross directed the National Marine Fisheries Service to extend the federal recreational red-snapper season, thereby delaying rebuilding of the depleted stock by as much as six years and allowing Gulf anglers to exceed their annual catch limit by as much as 50 percent.

In internal memos -- obtained in discovery during litigation by the Environmental Defense Fund and Ocean Conservancy -- Commerce’s policy and planning director, Earl Comstock, advised Ross that not extending the season would be “devastating” to the sportfishing industry and that, while the agency would take flak for unlawfully allowing overfishing, he shouldn’t fret because opponents couldn’t do much about it. Magnuson, Comstock noted, prevents temporary restraining orders “so your action would remain in effect for at least 45 days before a court could act.” Such is the Trump administration’s commitment to federal law and “good science.”

Fisheries activist Charles Witek, former chair of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Atlantic States Committee and former member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, responded as follows: “It was a patently illegal action…. What it tells you is that you have an administration that places short-term economic gains over the long-term health of fish stocks, with really no regard for the science.”

Meanwhile, the summer flounder stock was in a seven-year nose dive. Accordingly the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council followed its legal mandate by cutting recreational and commercial catch limits, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) allocated the smaller recreational catch limit among the states. This meant that anglers in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut would have to live with a daily bag limit reduced from five to three fish and a size limit increased from 18 to 19 inches. This, said New Jersey anglers, would be impossible. And, besides, the scientists had it all “wrong”; there were “lots of fish.”

The loudest opposition to scientific fisheries management invariably issues from New Jersey. And no voice there is shriller than that of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). While RFA claims to represent anglers, there’s scarcely anyone involved who doesn’t profit from killing fish. The mandated catch reduction “will be a death blow to an industry already struggling under the burden of over-regulation,” declared RFA director James Donofrio.

Claiming the needed reduction in summer-flounder kill could be rendered merely by asking fishermen to voluntarily use bigger hooks and practice catch and release, RFA and allies prevailed on Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, Representatives Frank LoBiondo, Tom MacArthur and Frank Pallone to demand that Ross overrule ASMFC.

Ross readily complied. Never before had one of ASMFC’s science-based decisions been nixed by a lay bureaucrat in Commerce. It was another gross violation of federal law. “The secretary’s decision goes against long-standing protocol, and there’s a cost to that,” remarked NOAA’s greater Atlantic regional administrator, John Bullard. “This is an unfortunate precedent.”

John McMurray, of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, weighed in with this: “New Jersey essentially gave ASMFC the middle finger.”

Currently there’s a big push by dozens of me-first fishing interests to infuse Magnuson with “flexibility,” a euphemism for more dead fish on the dock. RFA, for example, defines Magnuson’s catch limits and accountability measures to prevent overfishing as the dirty work of “anti-fishing environmental groups who have lobbied against our efforts” and who control the minds of anglers “still drinking the Kool-Aid of the anti-fishing environmental groups.”

But RFA has found new hope: In a recent press release it proclaims that “the days of the environmental zealots running the show are, for the most part, over” and that it is “excited” about the Trump administration’s “new attitude towards fishery management.”

--from Outdoors Unlimited, April-May 2018