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Deja vu all over again


    I ran into someone recently who I hadn't seen in a few years, a man who is a veteran of the battles over fisheries.
    As we exchanged pleasantries, I asked how he was doing.
    "I'm tired," Tom Fote said. "I can't believe we're right back where we started."
    Tom and I didn't exactly see eye to eye on things years back, and I suspect we still wouldn't entirely. But one thing we do agree on: What is being done to fishermen by NOAA Fisheries is just plain wrong.
    It's not just the issue of obscene quota cutbacks where fisheries remain at historic highs, on the premise of "protecting" the fishery. As always, the attacks on fishermen are coming from all angles.
    The most recent rebound topic has been the creation of marine protected areas. In the Pacific, vast areas of the ocean off the California coast have been declared off-limits to fishing via the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. First established in 2006 by an executive order of President George W. Bush, the protected area was expanded from 87,000 square miles to 450,000 square miles in September 2014 by President Barack Obama.
    Obama and Bush acted as a result of pressure from conservation groups that actively lobby against both commercial and recreational fishermen on a variety of levels.
    Now, Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that Obama is trying to designate areas off New England as marine protected areas. The declaration will block commercial fishing as well as exploration for and exploitation of any resources (such as oil) that might be hidden under the corals and scallops and other species that inhabit the Georges Bank and surrounding areas that are targeted by the proposed closure.
    Kerry, speaking in Chile at the Our Ocean Conference, said there are "plans in the works which we are pursuing for still another significant one in the Atlantic, where we don’t have the kind of presence that we want and should.”
    That one, in the Georges Bank area, would be in addition to the newly created sanctuary off the coast of Maryland.
    These sanctuaries – much like the quotas and the catch shares – are foisted upon fisheries with pithy statements of how the actions will protect fishermen for generations to come.
    Have you taken notice of how well these actions are protecting fishermen and the fishing industry now? I bet the Eble family could tell you. The Ebles – a fixture at the Barnegat Light docks for decades – threw in the towel earlier this year.
    “I really wanted to stay in the business another five to 10 years but the National Marine Fisheries Service's rules and regulations are killing us,” Capt. Charlie Eble said. So a family business that had contributed to the economy for nearly 70 years – Eble sold off two party boats when he shut down – is gone, along with the jobs it supported, the tourist impact it had on local restaurants, bait and tackle shops, clothing stores and convenience stores on Long Beach Island.
    Tom Fote isn't the only one who's tired.
    “I got tired of fighting for guys who didn't care,” said Capt. Len Belcaro, president and senior editor emeritus of the Big Game Fishing Journal, who battled for decades to draw attention to NOAA Fisheries and the continual creeping influence of the various nongovernmental organizations that are backed to the tune of millions of dollars a year by the Pew Environment Group.
    It is Pew, of course, that has poured its vast resources into trying to push fishermen off the water, with lobbying groups from the Environmental Defense Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, and the Marine Fish Conservation Network, among others. It has been one of the prime movers, shakers and demanders behind the marine protected areas as well as the drive for catch shares.
    Each step of the way, Pew has “promised” fishermen that they'd be better off in the long run.
    Ten years ago – when my mentor John Geiser was tearing into Pew on a weekly basis in his columns for the Asbury Park Press — Pew was promising fishermen they'd be better off if they simply accepted a summer flounder quota of 5.6 million pounds to rebuild the fishery. Fishermen were accused of simply wanting to take every fish out of the ocean, of being greedy and short-sighted.
    John Geiser is gone now, but you can bet he's spinning in his grave to see that 10 years later – with the summer flounder biomass remaining at historically high levels and fishermen facing a massive cut once again – that nothing has changed.
    We're still getting bludgeoned by Pew, and like lambs to the slaughter, few fishermen seem to be the least bit worried.
    If Obama closes the Georges Bank area to fishing by making it a marine protected area, you can bet the next move by Pew will be to push for a marine protected area that connects the one in Maryland to the one in New England. In case your geography is a little weak, that means New York and New Jersey are wearing the MPA target, too.
    We're deeply into silly season, with all attention on the elections and nothing of substance getting done. We still don't have a repaired, reauthorized Magnuson Stevens Act in place. We still have nothing injecting common sense into the fisheries management process, and we still have nothing forcing NOAA Fisheries to finish the work it was supposed to have completed to revamp its statistical approach to recreational fisheries before Bush's term in office ended.
    John Geiser often pointed out that while fluke was high-profile, Pew wasn't limiting itself to cutting off near-shore fishermen. Those of you who've taken great joy in the amazing bigeye fishery of the last two summers – and who have bemoaned the yellowfin fishery – need to understand that Pew considers you as much of a problem as it does the dad or mom taking the kids for a summer fishing trip.
    Think I'm crazy? I'd remind you that they targeted white marlin for an Endangered Species Act listing in the early 2000s – which would have completely handcuffed fishermen when it came to chasing pelagics.
    There's a George Santayana quote that has been repeated, in many variants, for more than a hundred years: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
    The past is sneaking up on us fast. If we don't start speaking up loudly for our fishing rights – as loudly as people defend their rights to gun ownership and the right to call each other idiots on the internet – we will find ourselves staring at the waves, waiting for a day when we're allowed to fish again.
    That's not a future I want to contemplate.

Karen Wall