Today's news comes from guest columnist Matt Tinning, the Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network
If you didn’t make it to last week’s ‘Keep Fishermen Fishing’ rally hosted by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, you’re not alone. Only a few hundred protesters were there, including just a tiny fraction of America’s more than 12 million recreational anglers. Those anglers who did come found themselves side-by-side with some very strange bedfellows, including a solid cohort from Omega Protein—a company many consider recreational anglers’ ‘public enemy number one’.
Tidal Fish readers need no introduction to Omega Protein. As documented by the Public Trust Project and many others, the company’s reduction fishery targets Atlantic menhaden, a forage fish that performs a critical role in the Atlantic marine ecosystem. Each year Omega Protein vacuums about a quarter billion pounds of menhaden from the ocean—80 percent of the total
coast-wide catch. Abundance estimates are currently at the lowest levels ever recorded, with spawning biomass below 9 percent of a stock not subject to fishing pressure.
Conservation-minded recreational anglers have been leading the charge against the politically well-connected Omega Protein. In an historic vote last November, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission opted for a process that could reduce total harvest by as much as 37 percent from 2010 levels. The Coastal Conservation Association’s Charles A. Witek III celebrated the vote as “a great relief for anglers,” but also warned that more work remained “to ensure that menhaden are properly managed to fulfill its role as a forage base.”
So what could possibly have brought Omega Protein out in force to RFA’s protest? Why would a dozen Omega Protein workers, two plant managers, their communications specialist, and the attorney who led the company’s engagement with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission process all trek to Capitol Hill to support a rally staged by supposed leaders of a community they are fighting so ardently against?
RFA asserts that Omega Protein wasn’t an invited participant at last week’s protest. But the list of those who were—groups the ‘Keep Fishermen Fishing’ website lists as either sponsors or organizers—is a strange hodge-podge of commercial and recreational players. Having failed to attract broad support among anglers, it seems that RFA has pivoted instead to mobilizing a motley crew of disaffected interests—interests who want all regulators to butt out, and who demand that immediate-term economic imperatives trump precautionary management based on the best available science.
Don’t get me wrong: not all the sponsors of last week’s rally share RFA’s extremist outlook. Furthermore, I’m an ardent supporter of cooperation across traditional sectoral boundaries: the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which I’ve led since the summer of 2011, is all about bringing diverse interests together to secure a more prosperous fishing future. We look for opportunities to align recreational, commercial and environmental players around issues that can improve everyone’s fishing opportunities—now and into the future. We know that fishermen are conservationists, and our fishing members work through us to advance both their immediate and long-term interests.
The Recreational Fishing Alliance, by contrast, is building a different kind of coalition: a coalition of those from the commercial and recreational sectors who reject the concept of rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work necessary to improve the flawed fishery management system that we have. The RFA strategy is to unite those who support a more radical stance. In advancing a blunt and blanket anti-regulatory message across all sectors, RFA is speaking Omega Protein’s language. Omega’s demand for unfettered access to Atlantic Ocean bunker—in spite of what the science shows and the regulators conclude—aligns perfectly with the catch-all message being pushed aggressively by the RFA.
These are tough economic times for many coastal communities. Jobs are in the balance for both commercial and recreational interests, and fishermen everywhere have quarrels with some of the opaque decisions of managers. In such a climate, RFA’s message clearly has some reflexive appeal. Yet after a disappointingly small rally in Washington last week, the paucity of RFA’s support base has once again been exposed. This appears to have left Mr. Donofrio contemplating yet more radical options. After his protest concluded he told Trade
"If Congress didn’t hear us after two rallies, then we might as well just forget the whole thing. I think the next move will be, if nothing gets fixed, we’ll do our own tea party — and I’m not talking about the Tea Party, the political group. I’m talking about a real tea party, where we just don’t obey laws. … I don’t want it to get to that, but they’re going to force fishermen to either be criminals or go out of business."
RFA may not have orchestrated Omega Protein’s turnout at their rally; but the company’s solid showing speaks volumes about the appeal of RFA’s message to those who would exploit our nation’s fisheries with no regard for the consequences. This insidious alliance of interests should be rejected by all of us who care about access to sustainable fisheries—now and into the future. You can tell a lot about an individual or organization by the company they keep. For those wondering about the true identity and motives of RFA’s national leadership, last week’s rally told us everything we need to know.
Matt Tinning is Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network. Follow him on Twitter: @MattTinning or continue the conversation with him about who truly represents recreational anglers: www.facebook.com/FishingAgainstTheFringe
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