Pacific Ocean closures developed in darkness, depriving public of transparent processes and input
In September, the White House made an announcement that seemed to finally give some credence to all those "Sportsmen for Bush" stickers adorning so many truck and car bumpers of fishermen and hunters in 2004. The president signed an order mandating federal agencies to maintain recreational fishing on national lands and waters - including marine protected areas (MPAs).
The recreational community rejoiced, feeling it had won a major battle in its struggle to preserve access to public waters for sport fishermen.
Increasingly pushed against the ropes by the relentless juggernaut of the Pew Environmental Trust and other green NGOs determined to carry out their agenda of closing off large areas of ocean to any and all fishing, spokesmen for angling groups and the recreational industry agreed that this should protect anglers' rights to fish.
It should have.
However, it seems that the executive promises for anglers' rights were as empty as a crab trap in the desert.
On Monday, Jan. 5, I listened to Jim Connaughton - chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality - enthusiastically lead a press teleconference to announce that the next day the president would proclaim nearly 200,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean off limits to all fishing. With a quick pen-stroke, the president would be creating three national marine monuments stretching in pieces from the mid-Pacific west to the Marianas Islands.
Actually, Connaughton seemed to make a point to specify the lockout of "commercial fishermen," avoiding any reference to anglers. But make no mistake: the prohibition includes all fishing - since Connaughton, like the green interests he seems to represent, and apparently the president, could scarcely care less if such laws atrophied sport fishing right into oblivion. To them, you and I and other weekend anglers, with our family or friends, are no different than industrial commercial-fishing vessels that daily extract tonnage. Recreational fishing is not allowed - unless at some future date, after federal studies are completed and federal agencies decide that some angling may be allowed, you apply for and are actually granted a permit for a specific fishing trip.
What's particularly deplorable is this administration's use of something called the Antiquities Act to make such declarations with haste and finality, completely circumventing all the legal processes that are supposed to determine such sweeping actions, including public hearings/input, environmental-impact and Congressional reviews and more. Despite feeble claims made by Connaughton at the press conference of public involvement, the hard truth is that this was all done in the darkness, with little regard for the public or established procedure.
Making that pill all the more bitter is the hypocrisy of Pew and other such environmental groups that have so loudly decried the failure of this administration to respect public processes in environmental decisions. Only weeks before this marine-monument announcement, these groups launched blistering attacks for the administration's end-runs to bypass the Endangered Species Act and National Environment Policy Act.
But in this case, since part of their particular agenda involves closing off large areas of the ocean, public process be damned.
If you understand just how distant and how remote are these areas, you might well be tempted to say, so what? This sure ain't in my backyard, so what does it matter? Good point, but misguided since a real concern here is precedent.
No, this is not in our backyard. But what about, say, great fishing areas in the Gulf of Mexico? Only last year, Connaughton floated an "islands in the stream" concept that would have had the president do exactly this same thing -circumvent the public process and public interest and, using the Antiquities Act, declare much of the Gulf off limits to sport-fishing weekenders and charter boats.
Fortunately, that didn't fly (to the chagrin of many environmental groups) - this time. But next time?
It's that "next time" that accounts for the considerable alarm among the recreational-fishing community, its industry and interests. Quickly putting out post-conference news releases expressing their concern were the Center for Coastal Conservation, the American Sportfishing Association, The Billfish Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and others.
This action carries the sting of being deceived by meaningless presidential promises to protect our rights to fish public waters and the fear of more waters being closed without due process.
Pew might say this wasn't done in haste. It has, after all, been working on the inside for years to make this happen. But you can bet Pew did little to engage user groups, notably the many millions of U.S. recreational fishermen, who've been shut out all along.
The way the Bush Administration and Pew have handled these closures is in stark contrast to another announcement of closed areas, very much in our backyard - off the Atlantic Coast from Florida to North Carolina, inclusive. An announcement made the same day as the press conference was mostly lost in the marine-monuments commotion. The National Marine Fisheries Service announced a final rule creating eight marine protected areas. Fishing or at least some fishing will be closed in these areas.
So where's the outcry from the sport-fishing industry on that? There was none.
In fact, the American Sportfishing Association, angry that "no open, transparent process" was used in establishing the Pacific marine monuments, noted that these Atlantic closures were the result of a long, "deliberative and public process where all the known facts were laid on the table," and it became clear that restricting recreational (and commercial) access for snapper and grouper "was in the best interests of the fisheries and communities and industries that depend on them."
Now, we can only hope our new president will have greater respect for the established, legal requisite processes that are the bedrock of our democracy, and avoid end runs that serve the interests of a single group. Even if that group is large, vocal, powerful and arguably well-intentioned, failing to acknowledge the concerns of millions of citizens and whole industries is not in the best interests of this nation.
We must also hope that Mr. Obama can discern as ludicrous notion of organizations like Pew and individuals like Connaughton that all fishing is the same and must be treated equally. It's far easier to lock up the waters and throw away the key than spend years wading through complex but vital usage issues; it's so much more convenient to treat a boy and his dad armed with spinning rods absolutely no differently than a factory trawler designed to freeze 300 tons of fish each day.
It's convenient. But is it fair?
I guess it's about as fair as unilaterally and unnecessarily declaring 200 thousand square miles of ocean and reefs off limits to any and all recreational fishing, even catch and release.