By Steve McMullin, AFS President
President Barack Obama once famously said, “Elections have consequences.” The first year of the Trump Administration clearly demonstrates the truth of that statement, and the consequences for fisheries and the environment are potentially “huge.” The Trump Administration’s approach to science and the environment during its first year in office included withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, attempts to roll back clean water protections through efforts to repeal the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, political appointees disregarding science and established processes in fisheries management decisions, failure to fill science positions in the administration, and proposed budget cuts for aquatic research and conservation, just to name a few.
In my brief remarks upon being installed as president of the American Fisheries Society (AFS), I stated that AFS must be the voice for fisheries because many of our members (i.e., those who work for government agencies) do not always feel free to publicly voice their concerns when science is ignored or misused in the policy process. However, we must keep in mind that AFS is a professional society and that serving as the voice for fisheries differs from environmental advocacy. Actively engaging in the policy process raises many questions. How will we choose from among the many issues that will affect fisheries and the profession? What form will our engagement in the policy process take? Where will we find the resources we need to effectively engage? I will address each of these questions in the remainder of this column.
There are at least a dozen policy issues in play with important implications for fisheries as I write this column. In order to be most effective, AFS must focus its resources on a few, select issues. A proactive, focused, and deliberate approach to policy will ensure that we engage in a timely and effective manner in the most important national debates, while leaving room for smaller issues as time and resources will allow. We will assign highest priority to national issues where we can act proactively rather than reactively and where our efforts will have the greatest impact. The traditional approach employed by AFS of developing lengthy policy statements did not allow for timely engagement and those statements were not always germane to the national debate. Though well researched and documented, those policy statements often were out of date by the time they were adopted and were rarely updated as per AFS Procedures.
Based on that reality, the AFS officers identified three issues as highest priority for the next year: engaging in the repeal/replacement of WOTUS to ensure consideration of the importance of wetlands and headwater streams to aquatic resources, supporting passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to secure funding for proactive conservation for imperiled fish, and ensuring that proposals for the reauthorization of the Magnuson–Stevens Act are informed by science and AFS collective management experience.
AFS will continue to work to ensure that the value of wetlands and headwater streams are properly considered in the administration’s efforts to repeal the 2015 WOTUS rule and replace it with a rule that undermines protections for water quality and threatens aquatic resources. The Society has an established position on this issue and has a long history of engaging on WOTUS both individually and with its partners in the Consortium of Aquatic Science Societies. AFS will continue to ensure that the best available science is considered as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers whether to repeal and replace the rule.
In addition to WOTUS, AFS will take an active role in supporting passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. This proposed legislation would direct US$1.3 billion annually to state fish and wildlife agencies for proactive conservation. State wildlife action plans are designed to protect and recover nongame species of greatest conservation need, but the states need substantially more funding to ensure that species in decline are addressed before they become threatened or endangered. Studies of extinction rates among freshwater fauna suggest that North America is losing species as rapidly as tropical forests (Ricciardi and Rasmussen 1999). This proposed legislation provides an opportunity to address habitat loss, combat invasive species, improve water quality, and apply many other conservation strategies to prevent additional decline and improve the outlook for many other species. As an added benefit, if passed, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would significantly increase employment opportunities for fisheries biologists. This bill could be as transformational for state fish and wildlife agencies as Pittman–Robinson or Wallop–Breaux. We will be calling on our members to get involved in this opportunity of a lifetime.
Lastly, but equally as important for marine species, AFS will engage in the reauthorization of the Magnuson–Stevens Act, the federal law that governs fisheries management in the U.S Exclusive Economic Zone. Discussions are underway in the current Congress that call for additional flexibility in the law. The last reauthorization in 2007 required National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–Fisheries to end current and prevent future overfishing by adopting a precautionary approach that relies on scientific stock assessments to set annual catch limits. In a relatively short time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–Fisheries has recovered 41 previously overfished stocks using this approach to fisheries management. Despite the successful rebuilding of many overfished stocks, both commercial and recreational fishers are frustrated by what they perceive to be an inflexible management regime that limits harvest to these more abundant stocks. The involvement of AFS in the reauthorization debate will focus on ensuring that proposals for changes in the law are informed by good science, sound management strategies, and well-supported policies. AFS will evaluate existing provisions of the law and the proposals for flexibility to ensure that conservation gains are not reversed. Where possible, AFS will propose scientifically based solutions for federal fisheries managers with flexibility to harvest sustainably and without undermining conservation gains.
Elections do indeed have consequences. There has never been a more important time to get involved in ensuring that aquatic resources and their habitat are conserved and protected. AFS needs the help of our members to effectively engage in these highest-priority issues and to track and engage as needed on other issues. We will be recruiting members with the knowledge and experience needed to serve on task forces to help us engage in a robust policy effort on these important issues. Although many of us have strong feelings about what is the right course of action, we need members who can help us to provide thoughtful solutions based on sound science and management of complex problems. If you have the knowledge and the desire to help with these issues, please contact AFS Policy Co-Director Drue Winters at dwinters@fisheries.
- Ricciardi, A., and J. B. Rasmussen. 1999. Extinction rates of North American freshwater fauna. Conservation Biology 13:1220–1222.
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