Budget Woes Continue, Vigilance Required on Key Issues

One year ago President Trump released his first budget proposal to Congress. The proposed cuts caused much consternation about the future of important fisheries and conservation programs. After a long slow crawl, Congress finally sent a budget deal to the President’s desk this spring. With the increase in the budget ceiling passed in early 2018, appropriators had flexibility to direct funds to nondiscretionary spending and largely ignored the draconian budget cuts proposed by the Trump Administration. Many of the conservation programs that were on the chopping block received funding at or above levels set the previous fiscal year and a troublesome Clean Water Act rider was stripped from the bill before final passage. If enacted, the rider would have allowed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to adopt a new Clean Water Rule without any reasonable justification and ignore public input along the way. Things could have turned out far worse if not for a concerted effort by organizations and individuals who value clean water, conservation, and our country’s natural treasures to educate and inform Congress about the merit of these programs. AFS served as the voice of fish and fisheries professionals in the budget process. Our engagement was one of many voices, but an important one nonetheless.

The fight isn’t over. There is much work to be done and we hope AFS members will join in the effort. President Trump released a budget for the next fiscal year that largely mirrors his first proposal, including severe cuts or even elimination of programs that fisheries professionals value. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units program is slated for elimination, Climate Adaptation Science Centers would be reduced from eight to one, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program would be cut in half with the competitive portion of the funding eliminated altogether, and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Fisheries Science and Management programs that are already chronically underfunded would be reduced further, just to name a few. While Congress is unlikely to follow the proposal as a blueprint for spending, it remains vitally important for AFS to continue to speak out to ensure that Congress understands the importance of these programs for fish and wildlife conservation, research, and training for fisheries professionals.

Over the past few months, AFS has continued to hammer away at our three key policy priorities for this year, including building support for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, opposing the Administration’s efforts to roll back protections for wetlands and headwater streams with a revamped Clean Water Rule, and developing a policy related to reauthorization of the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). I am thrilled by the progress we’re making together.

We’re making great strides in securing support for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, a bill that would dedicate US$1.3 billion for proactive conservation of imperiled species. Many AFS Chapters have heeded the call to action and individual members are sharing important fish conservation success stories, but we have a long road ahead. The President’s proposal to cut funding for State and Tribal Wildlife Grants demonstrates the need for sustained, dedicated funding for the program that funds conservation of at‐risk species across the country. Annual appropriations for the program could disappear at any moment based on the whim of Congress and the current funding levels are simply insufficient for the magnitude of the problem. The participation of every AFS Chapter across the country in supporting this bill would make a tremendous impact in building strong support for the initiative.

It’s also going to be vitally important to be the voice of fish as the USEPA and USACE move forward in their efforts to repeal and replace the Clean Water Rule with narrower protections for wetlands and headwater streams. Now that we’ve safeguarded the right to participate in the process, let’s be sure to take every opportunity to comment. U.S. EPA Administrator Pruitt has indicated that a new rule will be forthcoming this spring and we’ll be sure to keep fisheries professionals up to date as the agencies attempt to lift protections for the water that provides fish and wildlife habitat and delivers clean drinking water supplies.

And finally, stay tuned for the work of AFS marine fisheries experts as they develop scientifically sound proposals to inform legislators who are seeking to amend the MSA, the law that governs management of fisheries in federal waters. A small group of distinguished experts are diligently working to develop recommendations to ensure that policymakers make sound decisions that will ensure that U.S. law continues to provide for sustainable fisheries management. There’s been significant frustration on the part of both commercial and recreational anglers due to infrequent stock assessment surveys and insufficient data to drive those surveys that result in conservative catch rates and fewer fishing opportunities. AFS will be engaging with Congress on the need to maintain and, where possible, increase funding for fisheries data collection and stock surveys.

There’s much work to be done and there’s strength in numbers. We hope you join us in working to ensure that the voice of fish is heard by policymakers in Washington and beyond.

Note: the opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. Comments are invited.