Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Analyzing the Analyst

The colorful kelp forest atop Cashes Ledge flows in the ocean current. Photo credit: Brian Skerry.

Saving Seafood, a Washington, D.C.-based media and public relations organization funded by some of New England’s fishing operations, recently produced an “analysis” of the proposals to create marine national monuments, tagging these ideas “a solution in search of a problem.”

Saving Seafood concludes that permanent monument protections being requested by CLF and thousands of others for the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and five canyons and four seamounts southeast of Georges Bank—areas Saving Seafood recognizes as “home to some of the most important marine environments in New England”—are both superfluous and undemocratic. They conclude that these areas are safe in the hands of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC).

Let’s analyze this notion that the Cashes Ledge Area and these important canyons and seamounts are safe in the democratic hands of NEFMC, the council with the worst record in the country of stocks that are overfished and subject to overfishing.

One of Saving Seafood’s most assertive claims is that the NEFMC process is democratic and transparent. Fishery management councils and their decisions are many things, but democratic is not certainly one of them. They aren’t even representative. The only lens through which councils look at the ocean and its resources is fishing.

Voting council members are either current or former fishermen or the unelected state officials that represent commercial and recreational fishing interests in their respective states. The appointed members are first selected in a backroom governor’s process and then picked by an agency head in D.C. In its almost 40 year history, the New England Council has had only two representatives from a single conservation organization and one historian—serving one at a time.

Few fishermen, and then only those who directly benefit, would even suggest that fisheries management or fishery management decisions are open or democratic.

Council members aren’t elected by the fishermen they “represent;” they can’t be thrown out of office; and they are not accountable to a democratic political process. The council’s primary task is to produce optimum yields from the nation’s fisheries and prevent overfishing. And in New England, they haven’t done even that very well.

Second, Saving Seafood says NEFMC prohibited all commercial fishing in the Cashes Ledge Closed Area. That is simply not true. Massive pair-trawling herring boats can and have towed their football-field-sized nets through the area. Anyone who thinks this gear doesn’t hit the bottom from time-to-time is delusional. Shrimping, tuna fishing, and recreational fishing are all also allowed through federal management.

Finally, Saving Seafood says several times that “there are no actual attempts to remove the current protections.” This claim is utterly disingenuous.  After an 8 year-plus scientific effort to protect the essential fish habitat in the Cashes Ledge Area, which Saving Seafood acknowledges as some of the most important in New England, and after NEFMC expert staff advice to keep Cashes Ledge closed to secure the most economic and social benefits, the NEFMC Habitat Committee voted this past March 8-2 to re-open some 80% of the area to full fishing. They proposed to spare only two postage-stamp areas on the top of the ledges and on Fippennies Ledge.

To the public’s eye, the fishing interests and fish agency officials on the committee voted for opening Cashes Ledge. Also, the two industry trade groups who submitted comments to the committee both supported the opening. The Council later reversed that committee vote only after a massive public effort protest and a searing letter from federal officials who clearly couldn’t believe that the Council would respond to the commercial collapse of Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine by opening up more cod grounds to fishing. The Council, however, was clear that the closure would be revisited when the fish recovered.

Raising an important point that Saving Seafood’s analysis doesn’t even touch upon, monument protection is about much more than fisheries management. These monuments are being sought to protect species that aren’t commercially important like kelp and corals; marine mammals, birds, turtles, and other ocean life that are managed under other statutes and for other purposes than consumption; and for scientific purposes that go far beyond managing commercial fish stocks. Fishery management councils have neither the authority nor competence to make decisions in these areas.

We can thank Saving Seafood for raising comparisons between the NEFMC decision process and the monument creation process. The monument decision is made by the highest elected official in the country. The decider, the President, can get thrown out of office for his decisions. He is directly accountable to a broad set of public interests. He is the public trustee of our oceans and only he is accountable for advancing all the public interests in the nation’s oceans: sometimes he authorizes drilling; sometimes he authorizes fishing; and sometimes he creates monuments.

The Antiquities Act, which authorizes United States presidents to make monuments to protect special places in the ocean and on land, has been around for a lot longer than the fishery management laws and councils. It has been used hundreds of times by presidents of all political persuasions. No monument has ever been undone as a mistake. To the contrary, Americans love their monuments and want more – and they want more in our oceans.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in the protest some feel obligated to raise about this is that the proposals are consistent with and guided by the Council’s previous actions. The monuments would keep areas closed that NEFMC has already said should be closed and that Saving Seafood says include the most important marine environments in New England. In that light, these are modest proposals indeed. Someday, even NEFMC might see these efforts as having complemented their work, not undercut by it.

We need to do a better job as stewards of our oceans. Fishery management councils do not have the final word on that.


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