Commercial Fishermen Question Obama’s Ocean ‘Monument’ Preserve

Sep 28, 2016
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Commercial fishing boat owners and groups are reacting to the executive action taken by President Obama that created a marine national preserve in the North Atlantic on Sept. 15. They say that banning commercial fishing there is unnecessary, since the fishing industry has already been working with government agencies on conservation measures. Plus, they fear the preserve will be expanded in the future, like the recent quadrupling of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the Hawaiian islands.

The new 4,193-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is located about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod.

Environmentalists praise the fact that the preserve will also protect marine life from all drilling. However, the fishing angle is another matter, according to industry organizations such as the Garden State Seafood Association.

“All commercial fishing is excluded from the area, but fisheries in the top 10 to 20 feet, no way in the world they’re going to impact the bottom,” pointed out Nils Stolpe, communications director of the association.

Such is the case for a lot of the Barnegat Light-based boats, he said, for example, longliners and some hook-and-line tuna boats. “They’re fishing 3 miles up above all of this on the ocean floor.”

“Longliners are probably affected more than any of our other fisheries up there” by the declaration, said Ernie Panacek, general manager at Viking Village Commercial Seafood Producers in Barnegat Light. “Our bottom longlining boats and surface longlining for sword and tuna boats are going to be affected up there.”

Golden tilefish is found on the bottom and tuna and sword on the surface, “and they’re banning all commercial fishing,” Panacek noted.

“It’s not a big area, necessarily, but my biggest concern is an expansion of this national monument just like they did in Hawaii,” he added.

Panacek said fishermen have done “extensive work” with the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Council and the Garden State Seafood Association to protect deep-sea coral reefs and sea mounts in the North Atlantic, and were awarded for it.

“And now President Obama had to step ahead and do this; I don’t understand,” Panacek said. The federal Magnuson Stevens Act has been managing these areas “and they have been managed properly,” he said.

“We really think a closure, a national monument for this area, is unwarranted.”

Barnegat Light Mayor Kirk Larson, a scallop fleet owner at Viking Village, added, “We don’t know if it’s going to affect tilefish or not, but the problem to me is it doesn’t mean that they can’t make it even bigger like they did in Hawaii. They added 200 miles out into the Pacific; who’s to say they don’t just ask for more and more? I’m just saying that in the future it could come into the scallop grounds. Who knows what they’ll do.

“It’s just scary. You never know how your future is going to go, and you can’t plan your business over a 10-year-period. If you do, you’re taking a chance.”

Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, summarized that “the boundaries could have been drawn to protect coral reefs and to allow fishing.”

“Based on our experience with the Mid-Atlantic Council, which was very collaborative and it was done through the council process, that process yielded conservation results without severe economic harm to the fishing industry,” DiDomenico explained.

“The issue is some rare coral on the ocean floor in very deep water. But Obama wants to prohibit all fishing in the area, even the surface long lines – a punitive measure with zero benefits to the coral,” remarked James Brindley of Lighthouse Marina, whose boats fish for fluke, scallops and monkfish. As a national policy, he added, it goes against protecting jobs and the economy.

Rick Mears, also of Lighthouse Marina, said the monument declaration “makes no sense” based on the fishing industry’s knowledge of the area. Fishing for swordfish and tuna, his boats have operated in the area of the monument designation all summer.

“They say that they want to preserve the bottom of the ocean in its present state; well, fishermen have been working these waters for 200 years,” Mears said, “and the bottom is still pristine.”

He continued, “To ban surface longlining in this area is absurd. We have no contact with the bottom whatsoever. We are merely passing over it. They might as well ban merchant ships, cruise ships and sailing vessels, too. ... There is no science to support this action; it’s just another cheap shot at American fishermen. We are already the most regulated and most responsible fleet in the world,” Mears said.

“Also, this will lead to more imports of low-quality fish.”

Eric Svelling, a third-generation commercial fisherman working his boats from Lighthouse Marina, agrees that the action “sets a bad precedent.”

“Fisheries management should be based on science, not emotions or politics,” he said. Svelling’s longline and gill net boats are fishing for dog sharks and monkfish.

Stolpe said the declaration “totally short-circuited” the efforts that fishermen have taken for the past 40 years to work with the Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act.

“The Mid-Atlantic Council last year set up a series of protected areas, protected from fishing at heads of the offshore canyons; they did it with input from fishermen.”

The current declaration was done by an executive order of the president, under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The act allows protection of significant cultural or ecological features, and was originally used to protect Native American lands from looting of artifacts, articles state.

Obama signed the designation just prior to a speech given at a State Department conference on oceans. His statement tied the action to preserving against climate change and pollution.

“The notion that the ocean I grew up with is not something I can pass on to my kids, my grandkids, is unimaginable. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

“The dangerous changes in our climate caused mainly by human activity, the dead zones in our oceans caused mainly by pollution we create on land ... all those things are happening now, and they’ve been happening for a long time. We’re going to have to act, and we’re going to have to act boldly.”

According to USA Today, the statement from the White House said the monument will protect three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and four underwater mountains called “seamounts.” Marine life there includes rare species of coral, fish, whales and turtles, says the article.

Petitions are circulating. The Garden State Seafood Association joins more than 40 other organizations, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Regional Fisheries Management Councils’ Council Coordination Committee in urging that the Antiquities Act not be used to “circumvent the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.”

“The federal fisheries management process is among the most effective systems for managing living marine resources in the world. Through it, government scientists, academic researchers, representatives of the commercial, recreational, and party/charter fishing sectors, and environmentalists routinely arrive at fishery management decisions that, while seldom being fully satisfactory to all of the participants, balance the often competing interests of all of the participants in an open and well-considered manner,” the petition states.

Several of the area commercial fishermen also pointed out a similar statement by The Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, which “strongly opposes” the declaration.

“We find it deplorable that the government is kicking the domestic fishing fleet out of an area where they sustainably harvest healthy fish stocks,” says the statement.

“These indiscriminant boundaries, the result of a series of political compromises, will have far reaching direct and indirect impacts on the men and women that supply us with domestic seafood.” (More information can be found on the websites of the listed organizations.)

“This could have been a win-win for all parties. Fishing industry representatives presented multiple proposals to White House aides, any of which would have protected vast areas of deep sea coral habitat, while allowing fishing in all or most of its current footprint.”

— Maria Scandale



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