U.S. fishing heritage in jeopardy from man charged with protecting it

America almost lost its fisheries in the ‘90s when massive overfishing left us with major stock collapses and failing ports and businesses. But then Congress did something right by strengthening the law that put fishermen and fish on the right path. We’ve seen 20 years of steady progress — until now. There’s a broken gear in the machine, and, unfortunately, it is at the highest level.

Recent decisions by the secretary of commerce — the guy in charge of making sure our fisheries law is followed — have thrown the whole system into disarray. First on red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and then on summer flounder in the Mid-Atlantic, Wilbur Ross is undermining the laws that have governed America’s fisheries since 1976.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act formed eight regional councils made up of coastal states and the groups that rely on healthy fisheries to develop fishery management plans (FMPs). It was a genius move. It’s the place where an average fisherman like me could actually shape the future of a vital natural resource and build bridges for collaboration.

The councils are bound by 10 national standards that outline core principles like managing for long-term sustainability, good science and fair access to the fishery. These standards are the hallmarks of good management. While not perfect, there’s a process to each step of management and flexibility within the system to find solutions that work. The results are convincing. Ninety percent of fisheries are maintaining harvest levels below their annual catch limits.

It is the responsibility of the secretary of commerce to make sure FMPs are consistent with the standards, proper process is being followed and ultimately, to follow the law. Instead of protecting the system, Wilbur Ross started tearing it apart.

First, in early June, the secretary mandated overfishing by significantly extending the federal recreational season for red snapper. This action means anglers could exceed their annual quota by as much as 300 percent and that rebuilding the stock will be set back at least six years. Before he did this, the federal season for red snapper was really only three days. No one questioned that recreational anglers needed some relief. But the season was short because states used most of the available quota for lengthy seasons in their coastal waters, leaving very little for the federal season.

Secondly, we have the issue of summer flounder. The stock hasn’t had a good spawn in over six years. All signs pointed to a sharp reduction in harvest to account for the downturn in population. The regional council agreed on a reduction with the exception of New Jersey. New Jersey felt a reduction would do too much harm to the economy. So, New Jersey kicked the issue up to the secretary of commerce for a final decision. Once again, the secretary gave a green light to overfish.

The individual entrusted with overseeing the law that has given us all so much has essentially decided to ignore it. In reviewing the 10 national standards, Secretary Ross completely ignored almost half of them. This has never happened before. Moving forward, any group that wants to harvest more can essentially kick the issue up to the secretary and hope for the best.

That isn’t going to make for a great future. It will erode confidence in the system as well as discourage good people from wanting to be involved. Is this what America wants? When one person at the top of the pyramid entrusted with following the law decides to override decades of conservation work, there are far-reaching consequences. We are in the fight of our lives right now. It isn’t about red snapper. It isn’t about summer flounder. It is about the heritage of the United States of America, a place where we make decisions on what is best for all — not just the squeaky wheels.

The time is now to fight. We can’t afford another bad decision. Our children and grandchildren deserve to grow up in a place where they can enjoy the outdoors. Our country, the one we pay taxes to every year, is based on a system of laws. The laws protect what we love, what we depend on. If the laws are ignored, then we have to hold all parties accountable.

Trey Blackiston (treyblackiston@yahoo.com) is a 6th generation Marylander who grew up on the Eastern Shore and has been spent his life on the water, fishing both in a recreational and commercial nature.

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