As widely reported this week by Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin, the U.S. has become the first nation to impose annual catch limits on its fisheries. While many of the environmental groups interviewed (including Pew Environment Group and Natural Resources Defense Council) are applauding NOAA Fisheries efforts to roll-out annual catch limits and accountability measures to meet the 2011 deadline, not everyone is pleased.
"It is unacceptable that NOAA has placed such emphasis on implementing annual catch limits considering the data they are supposed to have attained by now is still not there," said Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). Appearing live today on the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, Rep. Pallone said "if the science isn't there then these regimes lack legitimacy."
According to the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), instituting annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AMs) which would include in-season closures and annual payback of any overage within the recreational sector amounts to double or even triple jeopardy on anglers.
"The recreational sector is already bound by a combination of season, size and bag limit to keep our effort and harvest in check, but applying rigid and inflexible ACL limitation with payback punishments it's going to lead to extra precaution by fisheries managers to protect our community against possible closures in the future," said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio.
"In theory, these catch limits sound wonderful to environmental activists and mainstream journalists, but for the recreational fishing community it means more restrictive measures and possible closures based on these immoral actions by NOAA Fisheries," Donofrio added.
The problem with the incorporation of ACLs and AMs in the recreational sector is the fact that saltwater anglers are managed by arbitrary survey methodologies including random dockside intercepts and sample phone calls performed by a third party vendor working for the government. Donofrio said the same federal law which calls for ACLs and AMs to be in place at the start of 2012 also required the federal fisheries agency to replace their Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS) by a time-specific date of January 1, 2009. Recently, NOAA's Eric Schwaab testified before Congress that his agency doesn't expect to meet this deadline until 2013 at the earliest.
"We're not sure how a government agency gets to pick and choose the Congressional mandates it is willing to follow and which ones it believes should be ignored," Donofrio said, adding "but this is exactly why RFA plans to continue putting as much pressure as possible on this bureaucratic nightmare, to meet the pressure they're putting on our community through their neglect."
In an official letter to NOAA Fisheries in October of 2009, Donofrio blasted the federal agency for its failure to meet its Congressional requirements to meet recommendations for science and statistical improvement laid out by the National Research Council (NRC), calling the implementation of annual catch limits (ACL) and accountability measures (AM) in the recreational fishery without such improvements irresponsible.
"RFA can identify only five of the 18 NRC recommendations as being fully or partially implemented since the release of their findings back in 2006," Donofrio noted in the 2009 letter, adding "Just as ACL and AM are mandated in MSRA, so are recreational data collection improvements, but there appears to be selective implementation of MSRA and specifically with red snapper, moving forward with AM and ACL before improving the primary data collection source for which to monitor this fishery."
As assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA, Schwaab testified before a House Resource Committee hearing last December that his agency had failed to meet their congressional mandate to replace MRFSS, a program deemed "fatally flawed" by NRC committee in 2006. Acknowledging that any new processes for scientific improvement won't be incorporated into the recreational sector until 2012 or 2013 at the earliest, Schwaab called his agency's efforts "suboptimal," while minimizing recreational data as "a small portion of the assessment process."
"There are two different ways in which recreational data factor into the management process, one is as a component of the assessment process, and certainly recreational effort and landings are considered by the scientific teams that make assessment decisions," Schwaab said, adding "secondly is managing, once a quota is set, the recreational component of the fishery."
"If NOAA and the Obama administration were really serious about protecting fish and fishermen, they would suspend these annual catch limits and accountability measures until science was in place to support such a rigid management regime," Donofrio said, adding "Mr. Schwaab's agency wants to implement rigid requirements without having the science or statistical analysis to support their efforts."
Rep. Pallone has sponsored legislation with Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) which would relax some of the new ACL and AM requirements, telling the Washington Post that coastal constituents are increasingly concerned that fishing will be curtailed without sufficient justification. "I don't think it's fair to put in place a system that's not scientific and rationally based," Pallone told the Post.
Appearing on NPR this morning, Rep. Pallone reinforced that concern coming from his local fishermen. "It's very difficult to justify decisions that are being made by regional fisheries councils or by National Marine Fisheries Service in Washington to your constituents, without accurate science."
The legislation, HR3061, is currently being reviewed in the House Natural Resource Committee and would allow the Secretary of Commerce to suspend ACLs if the science and data collection is in doubt. "My legislation, the Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act, adds common sense flexibility to current law and allows for the suspension of annual catch limits when NOAA doesn't have the scientific information needed, the stock is healthy and the restrictions are causing economic harm to fishermen and the coastal community," Rep. Pallone said. HR3061 would also require the NRC to perform another comprehensive review of NOAA's recreational data collection program to get a status report as to where the agency stands now after failing to meet their 2009 requirement.
In 2006, NRC noted specifically that "Both the telephone and access components of the current approach have serious flaws in design or implementation and use inadequate analysis methods that need to be addressed immediately." In their official report to Congress, NRC concluded that "users' concerns about the use of the MRFSS in fishery management are justified."
"NRC is the highest peer reviewed scientific panel in the nation, and their 2006 report clearly states that the data NOAA is using today should not be used for the types of adjustments required under the ACL and AM regime," said Donofrio. "NOAA is using flawed data to assess our coastal fish stocks, they're using it to enforce new ACL requirements, and ultimately they'll be using their random data to justify why so many of our coastal constituents have gone out of business by the end of the 2012 fishing season."
"NOAA should play a pretty big part in the November elections," Donofrio added.