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DRILLING FISHERMEN

Editorial

    For the last 20 years, the screws have been continually tightened on fishermen. A few flounder here, a few grouper there … slowly choking the life out of both commercial and recreational fisheries, with the incessant mantra that fishermen didn't care about the resource and that at the rate we were going, the oceans would be empty by 2050.
    The contention was and has been that fishermen lacked any semblance of self-control, and that they needed to have their industry saved from themselves.
    That was the argument used in 2005 and 2006, when Lee Crockett, the director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Charitable Trusts, was leading the charge to cut the summer flounder quota to 5 million pounds, economic issues be damned. Crockett continually insisted that summer flounder were in danger of reaching the extinction tipping point because of greedy, shortsighted fishermen — a common theme in the Pew-funded arguments about fishermen.
    Len Belcaro, publisher emeritus of the Big Game Fishing Journal, and John Geiser, the longtime fishing columnist at the Asbury Park Press, saw through this argument way back then. They questioned the approach of Pew, raising questions about the organization's continual attacks on fishermen. The Journal went so far as to point out the fact that Pew was funded by the Sun Oil Corp. fortune (you know them as Sunoco).
    What does that have to do with the price of tea in China (or gasoline at the service station)?
    Well … everything.
    I have long contended that the reason Pew has funded the persistent push to choke fishermen off the water had absolutely nothing to do with environmental concerns about protecting fisheries. Over the nearly 20 years that I have been closely following these issues, the never-ending theme has been that fishermen were not doing enough, that no matter how high the biomass had reached, we were still overfishing the species in question. Those arguments primarily have been applied to inshore species. Even when fishermen have provided scientific evidence that their on-the-water observations were not figments, Pew has argued and fought to prevent that information from gaining a foothold. How else to explain the fact that a scientifically validated fishing model was used for two years and then tossed? Could it be that it was tossed because it actually backed up what fishermen had been saying for years about summer flounder?
    Pew's birth from oil industry fortunes is the key here, and I contend their fight to push fishermen off the water is not about fish, but has everything to do with oil.
    The Atlantic Ocean has long been a vast untapped potential oil resource. Oil companies have been drooling at the prospect of tapping into reserves they believe are there. But accessing those potential reserves creates great conflict with Atlantic fishermen. So many of the East Coast fisheries that are a staple of the economy are bottom fisheries: cod, summer flounder and black sea bass in the north, grouper in the south. Continually tightening the restrictions on those fisheries means fewer fishermen on the water — and fewer fishermen to see what the oil companies are up to. It's no different than what's happened in the Gulf of Mexico, where fishing has become so tightly restricted that it's set off court battles over access to red snapper, the Gulf equivalent of summer flounder in terms of popularity and availability. Fishermen have been pitted against each other in battles over this species amid a larger push for individual catch shares. The tighter the regulations become, the fewer the fishermen on the water keeping an eye on what is happening.
    And that is the goal. Why am I certain of that?
    President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April to expand offshore oil drilling. In May, the Department of the Interior asked a federal judge to allow oil companies to seek permits to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean, the first time in 30 years that such testing is even a consideration.
    Concerns about the impact of seismic testing on fish and mammals have been raised by various groups. Fishermen have joined in, raising concerns that seismic testing could damage fish and that oil wells like those that dot the Gulf of Mexico could put the Jersey Shore and the Atlantic coast at risk of oil spills if there is a malfunction, pointing to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010 that resulted in oil washing up on beaches along the Gulf for months afterward.
    Pew and the mouthpiece organizations it has funded have claimed over and over that they are concerned about the environmental impacts of fishing. Yet for all their professed concerns about the environment, they are starkly silent about recent actions that would open the Atlantic Ocean to drilling for oil.
    There's not a word from Lee Crockett speaking out against seismic testing and the damage it could cause to marine life, including marine corals that he urged protection of in a January 2017 article. Not a word on the Pew websites pages devoted to ocean issues about the dangers of allowing oil drilling off the coastline of states that depend on tourism for a significant portion of their economies. Not a peep about the dangers that oil drilling off the East Coast and what an oil spill could do to endangered bird species like piping plovers, to creatures like horseshoe crabs that play a critical role in the ecosystem, and to white marlin that have been the target of past efforts to put them on the Endangered Species list.
    You haven't heard a word because, as we've long contended, Pew's real motives have nothing to do with protecting fish. The real motive isn't about making sure the environment is safe and healthy for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
    Pew's whole endgame has been getting fishermen off the water so the oil companies could search for more oil without really giving a damn about what happens to the environment and to the lives and livelihoods of those who live along the coast.
    Google it for yourself. Put in “Pew Trump seismic testing Atlantic.” You will see there are exactly zero results that show the self-proclaimed environmental trust speaking out in any way about the dangers of the testing.
    More than 10 years after Pew gerrymandered the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to put the hammer to fishermen, there are no changes to the legislation that is strangling family businesses that have existed for decades. These aren't businesses that are going the way of the dinosaur because no one eats fish. These are businesses that are being drilled because they are getting in the way of bigger businesses. It's no different than the little old lady who refuses to sell her home, a home surrounded on three sides by massive new apartments or condominiums. The only way to force her out is to make the situation so uncomfortable that she gives up.
    That is what Pew and the anti-fishing forces are doing to fishermen: making it so uncomfortable that we just give up.
    We still don't have a new authorization for the Magnuson Act, though the act was due to be renewed last year. We still don't have solid, believable, substantial science to effectively manage fisheries. We have regulations that are choking our fluke fishing, a staple of the summer tourism industry, out of existence. We have proposals for testing that scientific studies have said damages the nervous system of various species. And we have plans — albeit distant ones — to drill off our coast, near the Hudson and Baltimore canyons, looking for oil.
    We are getting drilled by Pew in favor of the oil companies. And no one seems to care.




Karen Wall

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