Anglers Dock in D.C. to Voice Concerns

Posted February 26, 2010 at 4:02pm

Sporting a gray ponytail and gold chain with a small anchor pendant around his neck, captain Dave Tilley hardly fits the image of the K Street lobbyist.

But last week the burly 42-year-old fisherman drove up from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. — the first time he had ever been to the nation’s capital — to persuade Members of Congress to change a law that he claims is threatening his livelihood.

“It is quite overwhelming, to tell you the God’s honest truth,” Tilley said as he joined in a spirited rally of fishermen across the street from the Capitol.

For the participants, many of whom stumbled onto buses in the wee hours of the morning last Wednesday, the trip to Washington was hardly a routine matter. Though clearly more at home when out at sea than in the halls of Congress, the rough-hewn crowd was motivated by anger at federal policy that has forced them to keep their nets out of the water.

The fishermen say the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, first enacted in 1976 to regulate saltwater fishing, needs to be amended to provide federal officials more flexibility in determining when and where to curb fishing. And they complain that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the program, is not using reliable data to determine which areas are overfished and should be temporarily closed.

“They are shoving rules down our throats that don’t make any sense,” said Tilley, who captains a boat called the Continental Shelf and fishes for vermilion snapper and grouper.

Their situation has become so dire that commercial and recreational fishermen, who are often at odds, have banded together.

“They hate each other. They blame each other for resources being depleted,” said Robert Olsen, who runs a fishing charter company in Charleston, S.C. But Olsen, who got on a bus at 11 p.m. and traveled all night to come to Washington for the rally, said both commercial and recreational fishermen “have a fear of being shut down.”

The fishermen bitterly blame environmental groups for prodding Congress and the administration to enact the fishing limits. One of the signs waved at the rally declared “Pew stinks” — referring to the Pew Environmental Group, which has lobbied for the changes.

James Donofrio, the executive director of the New Jersey-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, which sponsored the rally, said that despite the well-funded opposition, he believed Congress would listen to the grass-roots rebellion.

“D.C. is changing,” Donofrio said. “The political climate for us to get Magnuson reform couldn’t be better.”

Donofrio has been lobbying on behalf of fisherman since the 1990s. But it wasn’t until late last year when the NOAA’s Fisheries Service closed certain areas to fishing that he decided to call out the troops.

Amateur Advocates

Jim Hutchinson Jr., managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, recalled the November day when Donofrio looked up and yelled, “We are going to Washington.”

Hutchison said that proved true last week when 30 buses arrived in the capital carrying fishermen from states along the Atlantic seaboard including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.

Proponents of the current fishing policy say they understand the frustrations of fishermen, who have increasingly suffered from declining fortunes as the domestic fish stock has been depleted.

“These fishermen are wound up like a top. They’re angry. They’re fearful,” said Tom Lalley, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund.

He said 80 percent of seafood consumed in the United States, most of it salmon and shrimp, comes from outside this country.

Nevertheless, Lalley said the government had no choice but to temporarily restrict some domestic fishing because certain coastal areas “have been spiraling downward” in terms of fish stock.

Lalley also touted an approach called “catch shares” that is now being tried and gives fishermen some flexibility. Under this program, officials impose quotas on individual fishermen — rather than a whole area — and then allow those fishermen to sell their shares to others.

But small-time fishermen such as Tilley say the program doesn’t work for them because large companies tend to buy most of the available shares, after driving up their cost.

Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy with the Pew Environmental Group, said his organization has been active in shaping the new policy and its implementation. He said Pew has also funded advocacy groups, including the Marine Fish Conservation Network and the Ocean Conservancy, to lobby for the policy.

“We’re not anti-fishing,” Crockett said. “We’re pro-sustainable fishing.”

Reeling In Allies

Crockett and others argue that the government offers assistance to fishermen while they weather the period when stocks are being replenished. But the fishermen are impatient and have found a receptive audience among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who represent coastal districts.

At the rally, a parade of Members — including Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla) and Sens. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — delivered impassioned speeches vowing to help their beleaguered constituents. Schumer recalled learning to fish with his uncle in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay.

“We need to care as much about our fishermen as we do about our fish,” he said.

And Frank, whose district includes the old fishing port of New Bedford, told the crowd that Wall Street bankers whom he oversees as chairman of the Financial Services Committee should have been treated as badly as the fishermen.

In a written statement, Eric Schwaab, NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries, said more than 20 percent of the nation’s fish stocks are overfished and need to be rebuilt. Schwaab said the sacrifices made by the fishermen have the potential “to result in significant long-term economic benefit to fishing communities and the nation as well as benefit the overall ocean ecosystems.”

Schwaab also said that while he understood the criticism of the 10-year rebuilding time frame, the law gave federal officials the flexibility to make exceptions based on biology and other issues.

Keeping Congress Out

Not everybody in the fishing industry agrees on a legislative strategy. The American Sportfishing Association, which represents fishing interests including tackle and boat manufacturers, would prefer to work with the administration to alter some of its practices before taking the time-consuming legislative route.

Mike Nussman, the president of the association, which has 18 employees inside the Beltway, said his group supported changes made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act when they were approved by Congress and signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2007. But he questioned the methods being used by federal officials to determine which areas are being restricted.

“The answer is not to repeal it all,” Nussman said. “The answer is for us to convince the administration to use good management.”

While Nussman said his group might eventually lobby for new legislation, he would prefer not to have to go through the slow-moving Congressional process.

“The Hill is not exactly working like a well-oiled machine,” he said.

Whatever the outcome, some of the fishermen who traveled to Washington said they have no choice but to continue making their case. “You work so hard and everything can be taken away,” said Greg Slezak, a fisherman who came up from North Carolina to attend the rally.

A number of those at the rally, including Tilley, said it was their first protest. But despite his foray into politics, Tilley said he did not view himself as a lobbyist in the conventional sense.

“Lobbyists wear suits and ties,” he said. “I don’t think any of us are that polished.”