POLICY COLUMN: Where Do We Go from Here?

AFS Policy Director Tom Bigford

By Tom Bigford, AFS Policy Director

This is my 51st and final column for Fisheries magazine, which is cause for celebration and angst. I will be retiring shortly after this column is published, leaving my policy director post at AFS. Other than tasks associated with my continuing role as past-president of the AFS Fish Habitat Section, my next “to do” list promises fewer deadlines and no conference calls. With the writing on the proverbial wall, and knowing that the AFS Policy Program will be in great hands with my successor, Drue Winters, I will dedicate this column to some closing thoughts on my AFS experiences, a few thanks to those who helped along the way, several suggestions on topics that continue to give me heartburn, and several ideas about how AFS members can get involved.

My AFS membership has brought great joy and delivered many professional opportunities. I have been an occasional member since my undergraduate days in the early 1970s but continuously since 1996, chair and then member of the Resource Policy Committee from 2001 to 2012, part-time AFS staff since March 2014, Fisheries columnist since mid-2013, and Fish Habitat Section officer since 2013.

Several AFS members mentored me along the way and helped to shape my interests. A special thanks goes to Professor Eugene Roelofs at Michigan State University for encouraging me to join AFS. And it was past AFS President Ken Beal who invited me in 2001 to become involved with the Resource Policy Committee. That committee role signaled my transition from “regular member” to “engaged member,” a transition that I will address in a few paragraphs.

I am especially appreciative of the opportunities afforded by Doug Austen. He and I had met in the early years of the National Fish Habitat Partnership and remained in touch when he became AFS executive director in 2013. The government shutdown provided a fitting opportunity to talk about a new policy position at AFS, a tempting offer to remain engaged after my career at NOAA Fisheries. For me, becoming the first AFS policy director was perfect. My charge was to expand beyond the work of earlier AFS policy staff, identify a few key issues where we could make a difference, and shift our work from reactive reporting to proactive engagement, both independently and with key partners.

Thanks to strong contributions from a bevy of dedicated members I now consider friends, I can retire with a feeling of satisfaction. With Taylor Pool leading the way, in mid-2016, we identified a suite of fisheries issues for the next presidential administration. That document continues to guide us as we chart our path toward increased influence. With Jesse Trushenski, Leanne Roulson, and now Patrick Shirey leading the Resource Policy Committee, we now have an open connection to the resident expertise in the membership of 22 AFS Sections and the 4 Divisions. AFS is poised to become more relevant as we channel our scientific credibility toward those issues that Poole identified in his report. Though our work will never wane, I am extremely comfortable passing the policy baton to Drue Winters as the next AFS policy director.

I cannot help but to note some issues that remain unresolved. Hopefully AFS can find the capacity to address my legacy of unfulfilled expectations. My primary worries are the following:

  • AFS and the science/management/policy continuum—Members still wonder whether AFS, with its strong scientific pedigree, should dabble in management, policy, and advocacy. This question has been addressed by leadership and members since the early 1980s. We need to engage! AFS should not settle for being just the best and oldest organization representing fisheries scientists (as we state in the Fisheries masthead). Though true, AFS is about more than science or scientists. We need to accept that. Embrace it. Rejoice, for in breadth we will find improved success.

  • A concern lurking not so silently—I have spent the past 43 years worrying about fish habitat degradation, how to minimize human impacts whenever possible, and seeking a more reasonable blend of proactive effort and restoration response. I felt comfortable with my priorities and success until the last few years. But thanks first to Art Popper and more recently to Cecilia Krahforst of Coastal Carolina University, I sense that there is an insidious monster lurking under tranquil waters—underwater sound that could compromise fish behavior and health at the individual and population levels. I am no expert, but what I heard at the AFS Annual Meeting in Tampa increased my worries about this issue.

  • Interdisciplinary—Though our work is much more inclusive than I recall from my early years, I remain hopeful that a more diverse workforce and stronger partnerships will encourage more robust debate and better decisions. Broad-based regional planning such as the regional ocean plans developed under the National Ocean Plan and an ecosystem approach to fisheries management seem to be “low-hanging fruit.”

  • Infrastructure—I also worry about development, especially in fragile places where fish and aquatic resources were meant to be but where roads, stores, ports, airports, pipelines, etc., invariably stray. AFS needs to determine how best to remind these sectors of the billions of dollars contributed annually by the blue economy. Only then can we expect fish and the environment to be part of the discussion.

  • The new AFS approach to policy and advocacy—I will end with an optimistic vision for our collective ability to become more effective advocates for fish, fishing, and fisheries. AFS's “new” approach to policy and advocacy holds great promise. Based solidly on decades of scientific and management experience and bounded by our commitment to the best available information, our new approach will be more proactive, timely, useful, and appreciated. AFS will be more than a journal citation and more engaged than a website. AFS will make a difference!

Each of those issues, coupled with those in the AFS report on Future of the Nation's Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, offer near boundless opportunities for AFS members to engage through their workplace and/or AFS. Your personal commitment and contributions are essential to create the additional capacity needed to address our priorities. I am hoping that you can be part of a robust AFS Policy Program that can grow from its launch a few years ago. Become an “active” member.

With that, I will end my stint as magazine columnist and AFS staff. I'll still be around but am yielding on all other fronts to trusted colleagues who also see a bright future. You can expect to see Drue Winters' byline as she becomes the AFS policy director. Until we meet again…

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