By Doreen Leggett
Fishing groups from every coast, representing virtually every size and gear, gathered in early fall to talk about what matters to them: science, accountability and stewardship, core tenets championed by Seafood Harvesters of America
Days later the Biden administration made a decision that seemed to sidestep an open, data-driven decision-making process for fisheries management, returning the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts to protected status.
“We were very disappointed,” said Rhode Island fisherman Chris Brown, President of Seafood Harvesters of America. “The Biden-Harris Administration had the opportunity to revisit this issue and empower science, a true public process.”
The Northeast Canyons, about 130 miles from the Cape, had been declared a marine monument by President Obama, but were re-opened with a stroke of President Trump’s pen last year. Now they are closed to commercial fishing again.
The major concern for Brown and others is not that the area is once again a designated monument, but that the decision bypassed the federal fishery councils, set up by the Magnuson Stevens Act to conserve and manage fishery resources. All eight councils spoke out against what they say was an arbitrary process, devoid of stakeholders; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the same.
The New England Fishery Management Council, which represents Brown’s home port of Point Judith, Rhode Island, had already protected deep sea corals in the designated monument and beyond under a scientifically vigorous process. Meanwhile the recreational fishery, still allowed in the area, is not managed as strictly and often dwarfs the catch of the commercial fleet.
“They make the burden fall all on the blue-collar working class citizens,” said Brown, adding that it is backwards to talk about combating climate change and improving social equity and then “kick hardworking Americans out of a piece of ground that feeds people,” only to allow recreational fishermen with expensive boats that burn hundreds of gallons of fuel an hour to access it.
At their annual meeting this month, the Seafood Harvesters had a roundtable discussion with Janet Coit, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator, and, the following day with Annie Hawkins, the executive director of Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.
Both spoke about how the voices of fishermen are often sidelined when decisions on ocean planning are made.
Although the 21 members of Seafood Harvesters of America are vastly different, there has been a united concern about politics muting science.
“It seems we have defaulted to governing by fiat,” Brown said.
To combat that, Seafood Harvesters has continued to support strengthening the Magnuson Stevens Act, the overarching fisheries law that presumes a data-driven process to create sustainable fisheries and healthy coastal communities.
“It’s our coat of arms,” said Brown. “It has been held up as the gold standard globally. It has accountability and a dedication to the scientific process.”
MSA also created regional councils, which is why, said Seafood Harvesters Executive Director Leigh Habegger, her organization has pushed for them to be front and center.
“Councils are really the lynchpin of management across the country,” Habegger said. Seafood Harvesters has also supported increasing their funding.
John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance and a member of the New England Council, has joined others in saying that with the growing list of challenges facing the councils, climate resiliency being paramount, there isn’t enough staff bandwidth.
Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Alliance, said not investing in marine science is problematic when “we have a data-hungry management system.”
The groups in Seafood Harvesters, which range from Gulf Fishermen’s Association to New Hampshire Community Seafood, champion keeping track of what fishermen catch.
“Accountability is going to have to be our North Star,” said Habegger. “When we know what exactly we are taking out of the ocean we are better able to manage. The commercial fishing industry is leading in accountability.”
The recreational sector routinely overfishes and without strong oversight can become a black box.
“We don’t even have a good handle on how many anglers there are at the moment,” Habegger said.
When an effort to conserve 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, nicknamed “30 by 30,” was being discussed, Seafood Harvesters and others quickly pushed back on the idea that commercial fishermen would be excluded, recreational allowed. The effort seemed to help; when the President Biden signed the executive order on 30 by 30 it was clear that there was still a place for sustainable traditions of commercial fishermen.
The group’s influence on Capitol Hill is one reason fishing groups continue to join the Harvesters. Three became members this year.
Habegger was drawn to the job because she sees how important Washington D.C. is to how fishermen operate.
In addition to the marine monument, there have been worries about who gets to define and choose what other areas of the ocean fall under the President’s 30 by 30 plan, and also what many industry members see as a bad siting process when it comes to wind energy.
Unlike the council process where studies are done and then areas chosen, areas have been chosen and then studies follow.
Brown calls the primary permitting agency, the Bureau of Ocean Management, “the Bureau of Environmental Malfeasance.”
Coit also expressed the desire that her agency, NOAA, be more influential in the siting process. As it stands now the National Marine Fisheries Service can only comment.
If a wind farm siting decision strike fishermen as “just insane,” said Habegger, “NOAA can’t do anything about it.”
Habegger spends time lobbying, working with other groups, staying aware of what is happening in various House and Senate committees.
“I really love the policy side of things, really digging into bills,” she said.
“The men and women I get to work with in this job are just incredible,” she said. “They work harder than 95 percent or 98 percent of the rest of the world. I’m very honored to work for an organization that provides food security for the American people.”