Commerce Secretary Wades into Marine Fisheries Management

As Commerce chief, Secretary Wilbur Ross’ portfolio includes oversight of NOAA, but it is rather unusual for a cabinet level official to wade into federal fisheries management decisions.  National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or NOAA Fisheries), a unit within NOAA is charged with management of the nation’s fisheries. With the help of the six regional science centers, eight regional fisheries management councils, the coastal states and territories, and three interstate fisheries management commissions, NMFS takes a science-based approach to conserving and managing fish stocks in federal waters.  Since taking office in February, Ross has surprised fisheries managers and stakeholders by directly intervening in federal fisheries decisions leaving many wondering whether the Secretary’s atypical approach might be the new norm.

Ross’ first foray into federal fisheries management came with an announcement in June to lengthen the federal Red Snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico from 3 days to 42. The Secretary responded to pleas to provide more access to the resource from recreational fishermen and state managers who were frustrated by shrinking recreational seasons despite larger and more abundant fish. In the late 1980s, NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council began implementing various regulations to rebuild the Red Snapper population including limiting fishing mortality.  The 2013 stock assessment indicated overfishing was not occurring, the stock was rebuilding but remained overfished, and catch levels could be increased.  Ross justified his deal with the Gulf states to extend the season in exchange for limiting fishing in state waters on the grounds that the current management regime was undermining the federal-state partnership on Red Snapper management, and that it was threatening to undermine federal fisheries management in the Gulf and elsewhere. Given those factors, Ross felt a more modest rebuilding pace was an acceptable risk.

In July, Ross again went outside of standard procedure with his decision to allow New Jersey fishermen to harvest more Summer Flounder than allowed under the catch limits recommended by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (of which the state of New Jersey is a member).  Summer Flounder (known locally as fluke) are overfished and under the Commission’s rules states could be required to reduce quotas drastically or implement a region-wide moratorium on fishing if the population falls another 14 percent. Officials in New Jersey, which has one of the region’s largest fluke populations, had drafted an alternative plan that they said would do more to protect the fishery, but it was rejected by the commission, whose scientists concluded the plan would result in nearly 94,000 additional fish being caught.

This move marked the first time the federal government had disregarded such a recommendation by the commission, leading to concerns that political maneuvering could threaten preservation of fragile fish stocks.

“The commission is deeply concerned about the near-term impact on our ability to end overfishing on the Summer Flounder stock as well as the longer-term ability for the commission to effectively conserve numerous other Atlantic coastal shared resources,” Douglas Grout, the commission’s chair, said in a statement. Commissioners and fisheries managers along the east coast, as well as the region’s NOAA officials, expressed concern with the move saying it was unprecedented for a Commerce secretary to make a decision without seeking their input. Such rulings are routinely vetted by NOAA’s regional officials and scientists, who review the commission’s recommendations and then prepare the agency’s response, they said.

The Red Snapper and Summer Flounder decisions were both outside of the regular order of fisheries management decision-making. There’s concern that states and fishing groups will directly seek political relief instead of following NOAA procedures and adhering to fishing quotas set by government experts and scientists.These actions appear to address a Trump Administration promise to reduce bureaucratic hurdles to solving problems. Ross told a Senate panel in June he understood the frustration over a shorter federal Red Snapper season and that he shared Trump’s “commitment to cutting unnecessary red tape and eliminating failed regulations.”

These decisions are being watched closely as Congress considers reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management Act. The House Natural Resources Committee invited Ross to testify at a hearing on federal fisheries management on September 27, but Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries, testified in his stead. Oliver, responding to a question by Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said the decisions in both the Red Snapper and Summer Flounder cases did not involve the administration going against any recommendations made by NOAA scientists or agency leaders. Grijalva asked Oliver to provide more information on both decisions within 30 days and Oliver agreed to do so.

Oliver said the Trump administration has yet to weigh in on specific changes it would seek as part of an overhaul of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, but he said the administration backs “legislative opportunities” that would prove additional flexibility on annual catch limits.

AFS will be watching for other federal fisheries management decisions from Secretary Ross.