Soapbox Update for Feb 12th

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Can Congress Get the Job Done?

On the heels of a 1-day opener for Eulachon Smelt on the Cowlitz River last Saturday, we once again reflect on the differences we see today, versus just 2 decades ago when looking at our aquatic ecosystems, either fresh or salt.

With El Nino still looming, and a very clear decline in the forage base along the entire California Current, we have to wonder about the future of our fisheries world-wide. Smelt numbers are clearly down and the Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Game knew this going into this year, that’s why they set the seasons quite conservatively for smelt this month. I guess we have to weigh the fact that this species of smelt also made the Endangered Species List. There are of course, heavy regulations that go with a federal listing.

The last 2 years, anglers and Columbia River users noted a significant increase in the number of California Sea Lions utilizing the Columbia River to forage on the abundant smelt runs. One biologist noted the fact that last year was the first year that females were documented in the Columbia River population. Many folks have read the stories of sea lions abandoning their pups along the California Coastline the last 2 winters as well. Any human can understand the dire circumstances that exist, under which a mother would abandon her offspring. It’s just another sign that a significant (what I call) “population correction” is underway.

Prior to the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Act, humans took animal “management” into their own hands. How ironic that we’d manage other animals in the kingdom and not our own. I don’t think I need to tell anyone the history of animal management by humans; we don’t have a very good track record.

Although regulation associated with protecting dwindling numbers of sensitive populations of species is warranted, no matter what the species, many would argue that these protections have led to other, unforeseen problems that unless corrected, will cause other species to qualify for an ESA listing. The perfect example is the sea lion interaction, primarily the Stellar sea lion, still listed in northern waters but recently delisted in its eastern territory (Oregon/Washington). The Stellars have become efficient predators of the larger broodstock Columbia River white sturgeon, that has fueled fisheries since European settlement.

It’s a problem that our state and federal agencies are working on but many hope for a more speedy solution. The house natural resources subcommittee on water, power and oceans (how’s that for a mouthful) heard invited testimony on February 10th from a panel of experts that gave round-about information on the severity of the problem. It’s one that won’t likely be remedied anytime soon as the last time I checked the viability of the Schrader/Herrera-Butler bill (The Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act) it had a 3% chance of passing in Congress. It looks like there may not be any immediate action on this initiative.

Most would agree that federal policy is deeply debated in Congress these days and with fisheries policy, that’s likely a good thing. Fortunately, lawmakers on both sides of the isle are understanding of the benefits of conservation when it comes to federally managed stocks of fish. We have both  the fishing industry and the conservation community to thank; they both have viable platforms for our lawmakers to listen to. Policymakers should also look to the worldwide trend in fisheries as well. Although I don’t claim to have complete working knowledge on how other countries manage their marine resources, I don’t think foreign fleets would be plying the waters of other nations, or international waters for that matter, if they didn’t have to. We’re fortunate here in the United States that the Magnuson Stevens Act has been in place long enough to have benefits the citizens of our country. It’s enabled depressed stocks to rebound, allowing for more liberal directed fisheries and put us on a path to produce some of the highest quality seafood in the world, and in a sustainable manner. A sustainable source of ocean protein leads to a stable market for the fisherman’s product.

As we enter the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson Stevens Act, and face the reauthorization of the Act, we need our policymakers to weigh in on the past successes of the law and the necessary tweaks needed to ensure federally managed stocks of fish remain healthy for generations to come. Policy that keeps in place ecosystem based management and prioritizes protections of the forage prey base are critical components that will enable the Magnuson Stevens Act to continue to provide jobs where they are needed most, in rural, coastal communities that still have a natural resource that they can rely on. We’ll be keeping our eye on the progression of this critical law and pray that even given the current political climate in Washington DC, it has a much better chance at passing than just 3%.