PCFFA Fishermen’s News Dec. 2008: Change for the Better in the Obama Administration

December, 2008

Change for the Better A Fisheries Short List for the New Administration and Congress

By Zeke Grader and Glen Spain

Back in February, 2008, in a Fishermen’s News piece titled “Preparing For Change: The Audacity of Our Hope for Better Fisheries” (www.pcffa.org/fn-feb08.htm), we listed changes for the fisheries we want to see, anticipating the incoming new national Federal Administration in 2009. The title for that article paraphrased from Senator Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope. He was the champion of change among the many candidates. Little did we know that by November 2008 he would be our President-elect.

We now know change will be happening, but change alone is not what’s needed for fisheries; rather, it’s change for the better. What we want to do here is update that earlier list, and to give some priorities on what we earlier proposed as measures that would benefit the fishing industry.

Change of Personnel

The first thing needing change for the sake of fisheries, oceans and the environment is to toss out the Bush Administration old guard in NMFS, NOAA, the upper echelons of Commerce and Interior and the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). In particular, it’s time to give the boot to the ocean aquaculture and fishery privatization proselytizers whose crack-brained ideas have plagued us throughout the Bush years.

The most obvious position of concern for fishermen is the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), also called the “NOAA Assistant Administrator of Fisheries.” Here, perhaps, the new President could make it clear what this position is really all about by just renaming it the “Director of NMFS” as it was called for decades before President Bush. Our fisheries belong to the nation, not to NOAA, and it is time to restore the agency to its lawful name after eight years of the Bush Administration alias “NOAA Fisheries.”

For the NMFS directorship, we don’t have a name to publicly suggest, but we’d recommend someone with the no-nonsense style of a Rahm Emanuel — a person we can work with effectively, but who will cut through the BS whether it’s from developers, enviros, sport fishermen or ourselves; the type of person who will tell the likes of NFI, EDF, the Bureau of Reclamation or the Corps of Engineer where to stick it when necessary. Ideally, we need folks at the helm who are steeped in experience and knowledge of fish and fisheries — who are innovative, hard-working and have a spine.

We should not lose sight of other important appointments that may also affect fisheries. NOAA and Commerce are both over NMFS and the effectiveness of the nation’s fishery agency will depend on the type of support it gets from its parent agency and Department (Secretary).

Within NMFS, too, are the appointments of the Regional Directors. It is important that changes be made here, too, particularly in the Pacific Northwest (where we’ve faced decades of hostility), putting in place leaders who will protect fish resources and their dependent fishing communities. We don’t need any more Regional Directors or other NMFS bureaucrats who are nothing more than handmaidens of dam operators, water diverters, the building industry and agribusiness.

Interior will be another Department worth watching. A good Interior Secretary, particularly one who understands fishery concerns, will be critical for us in dealing with issues from offshore drilling to the management of western rivers.

After eight years of James Connaughton at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), we desperately need change there, too. The CEQ, which is in the White House, in the President’s main advisor on environmental policy and acts as guardian of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). James Connaughton came to this key environmental policy position as a long-time lobbyist for the mining industry and showed it. His policy in the dams vs. salmon conflicts in the Columbia was to save the dams and scuttle the fishermen (see March 2006 FN, “Bush Administration Outlines News Salmon Policy,” www.pcffa.org/fn-mar06.htm).

Finally, don’t forget about the Environmental Protection Agency. A strong EPA can make a significant difference in the enforcement of the Clean Water Act. The greatest threat to fish populations in the future most likely will come from pollution and the effects of climate change, i.e., warming oceans, less frequent upwellings, acidification. A strong EPA Administrator could be the best friend fishermen have in the new Administration.

Fishermen can and should attempt to inform the Obama Transition Team of the types of individuals we’re looking for in these key posts. This can be done directly or through the offices of your U.S. Representative and Senators. The official web site of the Obama Transition Team is: www.change.gov.

Change of Funding

Management of our nation’s fisheries has traditionally been funded through annual appropriations from Congress. Comparing the amounts appropriated for fisheries with their actual needs, it’s apparent that the old system is not working very well.

The blame is not all on Congress. After all, they have to balance the needs of our fisheries and oceans with those of defense, education, health services and a myriad of other demands placed on any federal budget, most of which are already in the red. Where Congress and past Administrations have been at fault is for not developing separate trust funds for our fisheries and oceans. We’ve had such funds for highways and sport fishing for decades. The two oceans Commissions both recommended the creation of such a fund to provide the fiscal support needed for our seas and marine life outside the annual — and highly political — Congressional appropriations cycles.

The severity of the current budget situation, probably the worst since the Great Depression, will make it even more difficult to get the appropriations needed to fund the basic research, stock assessments, management and enforcement required for sustainable fisheries. At the same time, the severity of the situation means there’ll likely be less “no tax” rhetoric (monies going into a trust fund are most likely to be fees, not taxes), making it finally possible for a trust fund of substance to be established.

The source for a fishery trust fund was identified by PCFFA more than five years ago — a nominal ad valorem fee on all seafood sold in the U.S. This fund would be capable of supporting a variety of programs, from basic fishery research to fishermen’s health care (see “Planning and Paying for Future Fisheries Research,” FN August, 2003, www.pcffa.org/fn-aug03.htm).

Keep in mind, if there are insufficient funds for research and stock monitoring, fisheries could end up being severely curtailed under data poor scenarios, particularly with the push for a precautionary approach and ecosystem-based management. Worse, over-fishing because of poor data could mean whole fisheries and their fishing communities could crash.

Now is the time to begin pushing for the establishment of a fishery trust fund. A discussion draft of the “Safe, Secure, Sustainable Fish & Seafood Trust Fund” has been developed to initiate action this coming year by Congress. Under the discussion draft, an estimated $4 billion annually would be raised for use by the trust fund. This is not much compared to the Stock Market bailout, and only about a week’s worth of expenditures in Iraq, but still about four times the entire current NMFS budget. What is proposed is that the trust fund should act as an add-on to current annual fishery appropriations from the Congress, not in lieu of the current funding source. We have copies of the discussion draft available on request, and encourage your review and recommendations as this effort moves forward.

Change of Health Care

What we’re talking about here is reinstating a national health care program for fishermen and their families, something that existed from 1799 to 1981 (at least for those on board federally registered fishing vessels) from Presidents John Adams to Ronald Reagan (see “Health Care For Fishermen,” FN July 2006, www.pcffa.org/fn-jul06.htm).

Currently most fishermen are either relying on a spouse’s health care coverage or simply going without. The average age of the fleet, the inherent dangers in fishing coupled with no system of worker’s compensation, together with the economic downturn in so many fisheries, have all conspired to put health care, particularly group programs, out of reach for most in the fleet.

Bi-partisan and bi-coastal legislation was introduced in the 110th Congress, spearheaded by the Massachusetts and Alaska Congressional delegations, to re-establish a health care system for our nation’s fishing men and women. We need to see that this legislation is reintroduced in the 111th Congress and acted upon.

The proposed fishery trust fund could go a long way toward making this all possible by offering up to a 50 percent match for any approved state or regional group health care plan for fishing families. A national health care plan for all U.S. citizens may be a ways off, but it should not be so long a wait for fishermen if we begin pushing the next Congress and new Administration now.

Change for Community, Cooperation, Collaboration

The next change that is needed to assure more than the biological sustainability of our fisheries is to fully integrate fishermen and fishing communities into the management of their fisheries. There are three essential elements to this:

Community-Held Catch Shares. Under any type of management scheme to divide fishing quotas or total allowable catch into shares, an effort should be made to put these shares into trusts held by fishing communities themselves, to be used for the benefit of fishermen and the immediate businesses in that community that depend on fish landed in that port.

The current proposals, promoted by the Bush Administration (and some groups such as Environmental Defense Fund) to privatize public fish resources by making them individually tradable, is to divide up the catch (after eliminating those with low catches in a carefully selected window period), creating thereafter a kind of market-based cannibalization, euphemistically called “rationalization.” What inevitably happens is a few large boats end up with all the catch and the quota ends up in the hands of processors who can pay more for quota than a crewmember or aspiring young captain. In other words, such systems tend toward consolidation into the hands of a few very rich owners at the expense of the rank-and-file fishermen and their communities.

If Pacific Coast groundfish fishermen want to see their future, just look at the Mid-Atlantic surf clam fishery, or at New Zealand for that matter. Unless quota or shares are carefully restricted solely to on-board owners, captains or crew (much like the North Pacific halibut/sablefish IFQ program), what lies ahead for most fishermen in those fisheries is the life of a sharecropper, toiling under the thumb of a processor.

It’s not just a fishermen’s problem either. Communities dependent on fishing would watch their fishery disappear if these shares are sold to vessels operating out of and landing in other ports. The “solution” to all of this by the North Pacific Council with crab, and the Pacific Council with whiting, has been to give processors some of the quota. That then diminishes what is available for fishermen or restricts the sale of their catches only to processors owning quota. Of course this really doesn’t protect communities because those processors can still sell their quota to processors in other ports — or simply pack up and leave that community. It also is an inherent violation of long-held anti-trust principles and reduces (even eliminates) fishermen’s rights to collective bargaining to receive a fair price. In short, processor quotas are nothing more than legalized monopolies.

Congress in its wisdom sought to remedy this problem in the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by mandating that the regional Councils consider “community fishing” and “regional fishing associations” in any limited access privilege program (“LAPPs”). These types of community-based programs, if carefully crafted, have the advantage of being able to protect local port-based fishing fleets and the ability of young fishermen to enter the fishery without incurring a terrific debt load or being forced to fish under quota held by a processor or NGO.

Community fishing and regional fishing associations hold the promise of curbing the rampant greed that has been the hallmark of most IFQ systems by keeping fisheries public and there to benefit larger fishing communities, not those who connived and gamed the regional Council regulatory process for their individual benefit. Moreover, fishermen entitled to quota or shares who agree to be part of a community fishery or regional fishing association could be rewarded with extra shares from any unallocated quota at the initiation of a program. A portion of the proposed fishery trust fund (above) could assist in the development of such community fisheries or regional fishing associations.

Cooperative Management. Many of our past failures in fishery management have resulted from “managers” not fully understanding those they sought to manage, the resource itself, or both. Utilizing the daily experience and knowledge of fishermen on the ocean and of their markets is invaluable and should be utilized in a cooperative management system.

With strict standards in place against overfishing and to assure fair and equitable access to the resource, cooperative management systems would benefit directly from the experience and knowledge of fishermen as well as gain necessary buy-in and support for necessary management measures from the fleet. There needs to be a lot more of this kind of cooperation.

Collaborative Research. Finally, it is time to establish formal institutions that will facilitate and foster collaboration among fishermen and scientists, utilizing fishermen’s vessels and knowledge in research and monitoring. Such collaboration, while not the answer for all research nor a substitute for satellite and instrument monitoring, nonetheless can be extremely effective in utilizing the experience and knowledge of fishing men and women, helping to lower the cost of research and monitoring, and employing fishermen, their crew and vessels.

One such formal structure already exists in New England with the Northeast Collaborative; similar arrangements should be considered along the West Coast and Gulf. One of the recommended purposes of the fishery trust fund (above) is to provide financial support for such collaborative research.

Change in Policies

In one of our earlier pieces in Fishermen’s News, we identified food, water and energy, each overlayed by climate change, as the three biggest issues facing the global community in the 21st Century. Fisheries play a role in each. The fishing community needs to be part of the mix in shaping policies affecting future food production, water allocation and energy generation.

Food. Recent spikes in the cost of food and shortages in many parts of the globe indicate that the “green revolution” started after World War II — primarily with the heavy use of irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization — has not been sustainable. This is particularly true in light of the still growing world population and the loss of croplands due to urbanization, erosion or drought.

From the fishery side, it appears that we are near capacity production for wild-caught fisheries, with some still overfished, while others hold promise of rebounding under rebuilding programs or habitat restoration. Aquaculture during the past decade or more has been the fastest growing form of food production, but much of that has not been sustainable either, as is the case with much of farmed shrimp and nearly all of the salmon ocean net-pen operations.

Making matters worse, climate change, and its anticipated erratic weather patterns, is likely to reduce per-acre crop production world-wide. Warmer waters, changing currents and upwelling events are likely to change ocean catch patterns, perhaps increase the number and size of oceanic dead zones, making fish production much less dependable. We can’t even venture a guess at what increased ocean acidification will mean.

It may be time for a summit among fishing groups, and farming groups representing family farmers and organic growers, to begin strategizing on what steps can be taken to maintain or increase production in a sustainable manner and in a way that does not benefit one food producer while impairing another. Together with groups such as the National Farmers Union and Roots for Change, fishermen and farmers will need to work side-by-side with the Obama Administration for new policies that will protect and enhance sustainable food production and protect families engaged in such production — whether they be farmers or fishermen.

As to aquaculture, we should not fear it, but rather work to assure it is done on a sustainable basis. That means, at least for the immediate future, there should be no open ocean aquaculture. There is simply no way to control the feed, the antibiotics, the excrement, or the disease and parasites from these facilities in open waters.

The emphasis, instead, should be on land-based contained operations utilizing stocks that do not depend on wild fish, nor human food crops such as soy, as their principle source of feed. There are ample areas where aquaculture can be conducted without going to the open ocean — ranging from lands that have been taken out of irrigated agricultural production to warehouses in cities. Often these operations can be integrated with other forms of agriculture.

This to us is a far better solution, and one with much less of a carbon footprint or threat to wild fish stocks than cages of fish in open waters. We need to push the Obama Administration to change the Bush Administration’s ill-conceived policy of promoting open ocean aquaculture.

Water. Even without climate change, water has been a source of conflict for decades, even centuries, in much of the world — and a source of conflict between fishermen and water diverters here in the US west coast for nearly a century. Now with climate change creating erratic weather conditions, loss of storage from diminished snowpacks and other impacts, such conflicts are likely to increase. New reservoirs that block rivers and more canals that further threaten our rivers and estuaries are not the solution.

To help resolve the ongoing and coming water crisis, fishermen have to be in these discussions, pushing innovative new ways to deal with limited water supplies that do not destroy fish and rivers. There are four areas we suggest our community needs to focus on in changing water policy.

First is to support better water conservation and water efficiency. Conservation is always cheaper than building new dams. This will help to reduce or control water demand on rivers and estuaries.

Second is to promote efforts aimed at water reuse and recycling, including low-impact development that can take stormwater, treat and reuse it, thus reducing demand as well as eliminating a potential pollutant source.

Third is to promote measures aimed at groundwater recharge and storage. This is a much better and more natural way for storing water than dams. Surface reservoirs block fish passage when located on rivers, and they’re inefficient since they lose water to evaporation, heat open water to temperatures that can be lethal to fish, and contribute to global warming.

Last is to promote the development of technology for building “green” desalination facilities for treating polluted groundwater or converting seawater to a freshwater supply. By green we means facilities that do not entrain fish or other sea life in their intakes, that do not discharge toxic brines and that utilize efficiently renewable energy supplies. Conservation and reuse can get us a long way, but desalination is necessary for water treatment and a back-up during extended drought periods. Without desalination, our rivers and estuaries will be under constant threat from a public clamoring for more water for drinking and domestic uses every time there is a dry spell.

Energy. The good news is that the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd was mostly defeated at the polls this last month and fuels prices have come way down. The more sobering news, however, is that offshore drilling moratoriums have now expired and the Department of Interior is planning for lease sales right in the middle of some of the nation’s best remaining fishing grounds.

Demand for oil will increase as supplies tighten, creating even more clamor to drill at any cost, and fisheries be damned. Fishermen have to be part of this great energy debate. It is not enough just attempting to put conditions on OCS development, trying to protect fishing, or just saying no to offshore drilling. The worldwide energy problem will soon overwhelm those small efforts.

We have to be ready to promote real energy solutions. Those should include full development of solar and wind energy that could supply the nation’s electrical needs, which may even include electric automobiles as battery technology advances. But it also has to include biofuels from non-food sources — such as algae, fungus or switchgrass — for the types of transport that cannot plug into the grid, such as aircraft and fishing vessels.

From the standpoint of fishing operations, affordable fuel sources and the long-term protection of the ocean, the fishing industry needs to be at the forefront of the energy debate by pushing the new Administration for fundamental policy changes away from reliance on fast disappearing fossil fuels toward the development of clean and renewable energy development.

Statutory Change

Finally, in the endeavor to create change for the better, there are three statutes we want to emphasize that require updating. With two of them it’s a matter of strengthening and full funding, with the last it’s a change needed for clarity.

Clean Water Act. This is the critical statute aimed at making sure our nation’s waters are “swimmable and fishable.” Of course, we”d prefer an even higher standard to ensure that fish in these waters are also “edible,” i.e., no pollutants making them unsafe to eat.

The Clean Water Act is already playing an important role in protecting near-shore and inland-origin fisheries, including the establishment of TMDL (Clean Water Act parlance for “total maximum daily load”) maximum pollutant standards for many rivers, even in dam relicensing issues such as on the Klamath. Any new power dams, and all old dams to be relicensed, must now meet modern Clean Water Act standards.

The Waterkeepers Alliance has developed a set of recommendations for positive changes to the Clean Water Act that the fishing industry could support (www.waterkeeper.org/mainarticledetails.aspx?articleid=345). One of the big issues is redefining “navigable” for purposes of the Act, following the Supreme Court’s recent very narrow interpretation greatly limiting the scope of the law.

We should also be pushing for stronger state and federal clean water protections generally — after all, this is about jobs and the safety of fish consumers. Fishing groups should not be timid here, and should be demanding that these laws cover all agricultural and polluted run-off and groundwater. Many of those impacts are now exempted under state clean water laws.

Endangered Species Act. Even though fisheries are a regulated industry under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), that Act has proven invaluable to fishermen’s efforts to protect and restore habitat of many key fish stocks. The ESA is the principle driver for badly needed water reforms and dam removal projects, and is critical for recovery of once-abundant, but now endangered, west coast salmon runs.

The ESA is by far the strongest law protecting fish habitat. Remember, the Magnuson-Stevens Act principally regulates fishing activities at sea, but confers no real legal authority over near-shore and in-stream spawning and rearing habitat, nor control over in-river flows. It cannot mandate operational changes by non-fishing federal entities, e.g., the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Nor can it prevent the destruction of fisheries habitat by private industries.

Once triggered by a formal listing, however, the ESA gives the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) the authority to step in through a mandatory consultation process to require changed operations or habitat/flow fixes preventing further endangerment of fish stocks. Moreover, the ESA requires strong measures for their eventual recovery.

Ever since 1995, when Newt Gingrich seized control of Congress, and until the 2006 election, the ESA has been under constant Congressional threat driven by large, powerful industries whose activities run afoul of the Act’s protective language. Even some fishermen chaffed at some of the ESA’s restrictions on certain fishing practices. So-called ESA “reforms” pushed in Gingrich-era Congresses would have gutted or weakened the ESA substantially.

For salmon and other badly damaged fish stocks, however, eliminating the ESA would have meant the full weight of conservation would have been shouldered solely by fishermen — even through fishing is not the main cause of these populations’ declines. In other words, fishermen (and only fishermen) would have been shut down while the real scofflaws avoided responsibility and escaped regulation. For more about the importance of the ESA to fishermen see “Why Fishermen Need the Endangered Species Act,” FN January 1995, www.pcffa.org/fn-jan95.htm.

For fisheries protection, however, the ESA’s scope is limited. For one thing, it only kicks in once a species is ESA-listed as “threatened with extinction,” which is often far too late to save the species without great cost, and is nearly always well after any fishing impacts have been halted under “weak stock management” constraints. On the other hand, the ESA does require measures that can also help more abundant fish for which there is still a fishery. It also prevents extinction and promotes at least the beginnings of stock rebuilding — that is, if and when NMFS puts in place recovery plans.

The main changes we’d like to see Congress make to the ESA is to make sure it’s fully funded. Right now, ESA recovery efforts receive less than 50 cents/year per capita support from Congress. That is a pretty small annual investment in efforts to prevent utter extinction of species important to human existence on Earth, not to mention species that are part of our own food chain. The proposed fishery trust fund could provide some support here, particularly for protection of species important to future fisheries. This would also help make ESA recovery plans less political.

There should also be ESA statutory timelines on establishing recovery plans, thus at last getting away from the “list and languish” problem that’s been the pattern for too many species under the Act. Right now there are no such deadlines, and many species have been federally protected under the ESA for a decade or more with no actual recovery plan in sight, and thus very little effort to save them. There should also be more funding for habitat protection incentives, so that landowners think of having an ESA-listed species on their lands as valuable, not burdensome.

A list of changes PCFFA has proposed in the past to strengthen and streamline the ESA were outlined in an earlier Fishermen’s News piece (“A Fishermen’s Agenda for the ESA,” FN December 1995 at: www.pcffa.org/fn-dec95.htm). These changes were embodied is several later ESA reform bills (positive reforms this time, not the sham efforts of other bills) sponsored by Congressman George Miller in the 105th Congress (H.R. 2351) and 106th Congress (H.R. 4579), with similar bills introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer in the Senate. This bill should be revived under a new Administration and a better Congress.

One parting gift from the Bush Administration as it leaves office are proposed new rules to cut NMFS and Fish and Wildlife scientists out of the ESA consultation process entirely, leaving many future ESA compliance decisions up to political appointees within the very agency proposing a project. These so-called “self-consultation” regulations are a perversion of the ESA intended to make it meaningless as well as ineffective. PCFFA is leading the charge to challenge these proposed new rules in Court, and asking both the new Congress and the Obama Administration to quickly overturn them.

The ESA is not a fix-all, and it does not substitute for good fisheries management. Indeed, it is only the last ditch effort to prevent stock extinctions when all else has failed. But without it, many important fish stocks (particularly salmon) would be extinct by now, and many more would face extinction in the near future.

Marine Sanctuaries & Reserves Act. Finally, our National Marine Sanctuaries have at times proven invaluable in helping to protect vital fishing grounds from offshore drilling, dredge spoil dumping, or even the scuttling of decommissioned nuclear submarine reactors on the seabed floor. This is why fishermen supported their creation originally.

In the case of sanctuaries such as the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank, the fishing fleet has had an excellent relationship with sanctuary managers, including a number of collaborative protective efforts. That has not been the case, however, with sanctuaries such as Monterey Bay — that relationship can best be described as a nightmare, with sanctuary managers there now proposing to completely usurp the fishery management authorities of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the State of California in its efforts to eliminate trawling within its massive boundary.

A strong Marine Sanctuaries Act can serve to protect ocean waters and important fishing grounds. But with a strong Act there also needs to be clarification about just who does the fishery management.

The Act needs amending to clarify that management of fisheries within the sanctuaries is within the sole jurisdiction of the regional Fishery Management Councils and state fishery authorities, period.

If sanctuary authorities have concerns regarding any fishing operation within their boundaries they have the right and should bring it to their Regional Council or state fishery agency/commission, whichever has authority over the fishery in question, to resolve any problems. Otherwise fishery management itself becomes terribly fragmented and inconsistent. The sanctuaries, which lack the expertise in fisheries, need clear direction to stay out of fishery management completely, leaving it instead to the experts.


There are other changes we’d like to see in the new Obama Administration. This is, however, already an ambitious list, hitting on most of the high priority needs in our fisheries. We encourage you to go back and read the February 2008 Fishermens News article as well, and we’d like your comments on this agenda.

Change is going to happen one way or the other. If we’re involved in shaping those changes, however, we can at least work to make sure these changes are for the better for our fisheries and the future of our industry.

Zeke Grader is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). Glen Spain is PCFFA’s Northwest Regional Director. PCFFA can be reached at its Southwest Office at PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080, and at its Northwest Office at PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000 or by email to: fish1ifr@aol.com. PCFFA’s Internet Home Page is at: www.pcffa.org.