Two days before Groundhog Day, I was having déjà vu.
Here I was on a conference call, hearing the same words I’d heard from Lee Crockett almost 10 years ago. The same sabre-rattling, too.
Lee Crockett, the director of U.S. oceans for the Pew Charitable Trusts, was hosting the conference call to tell the world once again how evil and greedy fishermen are, as he leads the Pew assault on proposed changes to the Magunuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The act is up for reauthorization this year, and after lengthy hearings over the last year, there have been changes proposed to the act that would give fisheries managers the ability to balance both the needs of the species and the needs of the fishermen.
The draft, released by the Natural Resources Committee just before Christmas, would call the reauthorized act the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”
Crockett says the draft, which he called “full of loopholes and excuses for inaction,” will be “dead on arrival in the Senate.”
Why does he object? The draft proposes changes that reinforce National Standard 8 that applies to fisheries management, which says regulations must consider the economic impact on fishing communities. One specific example is the addition of the ability to phase in over three years regulations in a fishery where a dramatic, sudden cutback in the fishing quota would cause significant economic damage.
Crockett objects for one reason: He hates fishermen. From the first time I heard him speak, at an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission hearing in Galloway, N.J., in 2006, he has attacked fishermen as being only interested in themselves, not the longterm sustainability of the fish.
“We at Pew are calling it the Empty Oceans Act because of the damage it would do to fisheries and fishing communities,” he said of the draft legislation presented by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).
Funny, that sounds exactly like the “no more fish in the ocean” stories that grabbed headlines back in 2006, when a since-discredited study proclaimed there would be nothing left but jellyfish by the year 2050.
Of course, back in 2006 Crockett simply attacked fishermen on his own. Now, he enlists people he presents as being part of the fishing community to support his arguments in a ludicrous attempt to make it appear that he has support for his anti-fishing crusade.
But these sheep in wolves clothing aren’t enough to outweigh Crockett’s obvious hatred for fishermen, which came through loud and clear in the edge in his voice as he responded to questions from reporters who have been covering these issues for years.
Fishermen seeking changes to Magnuson that would allow consideration of the economic impact are simply seeking “a contrived short-term economic gain,” he said.
I guess it’s easy to consider a person’s desire to pay their bills and feed their family a contrived economic gain when you’re pulling down a six-figure salary from an organization that took in nearly $300 million in public support in 2012. Then again, that is a hallmark of what Pew does as a whole. But I digress.)
Crockett said the changes suggested would turn back the clock on “all the progress that’s been made” since the antifishing crusade began in the mid-1990s. Most of that “progress” has been the elimination of thousands of jobs nationwide and the crippling of fishing communities to such a degree that a fisheries disaster has been declared in some areas, and others have turned to publicizing their work on reality TV.
My favorite part of the conference call, however, was when Crockett engaged in his typical doublespeak. On one hand, he insisted it was time for us to move to managing ecosystems instead of managing fish on a stock-by-stock basis, but minutes later insisted that it’s possible and not unreasonable to insist all fish stocks to be rebuilt to their maximum levels all at once -- ignoring the reality that such an effort would result in an ecosystem out of balance.
Richard Degener, a reporter for The Press of Atlantic City in New Jersey who has been covering fisheries issues for years, raised that point on the call, noting how the attempt to rebuild all species to maximum levels has created a mess with spiny dogfish in the Mid-Atlantic region, where the small shark has reproduced so quickly that a commercial fishery has been reinstated on a small level less than 10 years after the dogfish was declared an endangered species.
“There’s a question as to whether that statement is true,” Crockett said, replying to Degener’s question about the conflicting goals of raising all populations in an ecosystem to maximum levels. But from there he leveled another criticism at fishermen, saying “those in the conservation community believe it’s an entrée to go in and overfish a species that we don’t like.”
Crockett’s crony, George Geiger, the former chair of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, was even more dismissive: “You can’t have everything. If the determination is made that you want rebuilt stocks, short-term economic gain” will be sacrificed, he said.
Capt. Patrick Paquette, who was on the call “representing” recreational fishermen, said ecosystem management and demanding funding for it is the answer. But that conveniently ignores the fact that NOAA was mandated to fix its system of accounting for the recreational harvest under the last reauthorization, and blew the deadline and the extension given to implement the Marine Recreational Information Program. Worse, NOAA continues to misuse the data provided as a hard recreational harvest number instead of as a way to show trends -- and demands accountability for quota excesses in the form of hard paybacks on numbers that are not hard counts.
Ecosystem management has been talked about for decades, long preceding my time covering fisheries. In the nine years since I started delving into these issues, there’s been little progress and even less drive to get it done. So Crockett bringing it up now is nothing more than an empty platitude.
The reality is that Crockett’s stance is typical of everything Pew does: Sound the alarm about what it sees as a problem, whether it’s fishermen daring to want to make a living by catching fish, or families struggling to get out of poverty, criticize the government’s response and then … do nothing.
Pew ended 2012 with nearly $740 million in assets, according to the Form 990 it filed with the IRS. Its stated goal, to the IRS, is to “improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.” All those assets just to talk about what can be done about crises they manufacture, when there are millions of people deeply in need of help.
If Lee Crockett and Pew really cared about fishing communities, they’d be putting some of those millions to work helping people finds ways to build a new life after their fishing communities have been destroyed by catch shares and quotas that have forced them into bankruptcy.
They’d fund research -- real research, not more talking, not more surveys.
But that would make too much sense. Just like the changes proposed for this round of the Magnuson reauthorization make sense.
Lee Crockett and 178 other people who work for Pew and make six-figure salaries and never have to worry about whether they’re skipping a meal to pay the electric bill. They can cry wolf all day long and never worry that they’ll be told their job is being eliminated -- because there’s always a new crisis to invent. Fishermen deserve to be able live without the constant threat of financial ruin.
So, write to members of the House of Representatives, and write to your members of the Senate. Tell them you demand NOAA be held accountable for its foot-dragging, and demand that they listen to you instead of the millionaires at Pew who are driving public policies that put people out of jobs and destroy communities.
We have a right to expect our Congress to listen to us. We need to insist they listen to us and not the millionaires who spend money screaming the ocean is going to be empty simply because they got bored counting their money.
Two days before Groundhog Day, I was having déjà vu.