WASHINGTON — Fishermen, anglers, charter and party boat captains, and marine business owners from coast-to-coast gathered here to demand changes in fisheries law that they say is putting them out of work.
This year and next endangered coastal fishing grounds in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are to be closed to allow depleted fish species to recover from overfishing. The closures could be as long as 10 years.
"A lot of coastal communities across the United States have had severe negative economic impacts from the excessive regulations," says Pam Anderson, the operations manager at the Capt. Anderson Marina in Panama City Beach in Florida. "Folks can't carry on."
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which enforces the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, introduced annual catch limits, closed some areas to fishing to stop overfishing and intend to close others. While the no-fishing areas represent only 1 percent of the total U.S. waters, the closures means a loss of jobs and revenues for local economies.
While fishing is still allowed in Gulf of Mexico, a region of the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to North Carolina was closed initially to fishing from Jan. 4 to June 2, to allow stocks of red snapper to replenish. The period can be extended for another six-month period.
Fishermen fear long replenishment periods will have severe impact on the commercial and recreational fishing industry.
"At least a thousand jobs in Fort Lauderdale will be lost this year," said Bob Jones, director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Tallahassee, Fla. "The economic impact will be far beyond fishing industry." Local economies, who rely on recreational fisherman, also will be hit by the fishing restrictions.
Kevin McDonald, a recreational fisherman from Pennsylvania who came to the rally, said he stopped going to his usual haunt in North Carolina after similar federal regulations kicked in three years ago. He used to spend around $3,000 in each trip on housing, food and equipment rental.
Federal fishery experts said that in the long run, the closures and the resulting rebound in the number of fish, help the industry.
"It is much more financially stable and lucrative to the fishing industries," said Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for NOAA's Fisheries Service.
The Atlantic sea scallop — usually found off New Jersey and Massachusetts — was overfished in 1994 and the value of the catch was about $85 million that year. After being closed for seven years, Mid-Atlantic catch was significantly higher. In 2008, the yield was $370 million, Allen said.
At the protest rally, the fishermen, who had assembled under the flag of United We Fish, also said NOAA was basing its closure decisions on flawed data. They contend that the fish count is actually higher than NOAA's estimate.
For example, NOAA says that red snapper and black grouper in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast Atlantic are overfished.
Anderson disputes that assessment.
"There are more red snappers in the waters than in 30-40 years," Anderson said of the Gulf.
Some fishermen say there are other reasons for depletion of fish stocks. Duncan Maclean operates a Pacific salmon trawler out of the Half Moon Bay area, south of San Francisco. The bay has been closed to salmon fishermen because of overfishing for two years now.
Maclean said the low fish population is due to toxic agricultural runoff and municipal treatment plants that kill small fish in the bay, which is a breeding place for some species.
"There is a 100 percent unemployment in fishing industries in the area," said Maclean, who's also an adviser to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The annual loss to California's economy from combined commercial and recreational salmon harvests are around $1.4 billion a year in recent years, according to a report from Florida-based Southwick Associates. The area also saw the loss of thousands of jobs, Maclean said, including those of equipment manufacturers, equipment and fish wholesalers, retailers, commercial charter boats and river guides.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., sought congressional review Tuesday of the federal government's restrictions on commercial, recreational and charter fishing in Florida.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., stressed at the rally that jobs were her priority and that deadlines set by the act were arbitrary. "Flexibility will allow fishing stocks to rebuild and help fishing industry to thrive." Hagan supports a bipartisan effort to amend the act but indicated that balancing environmental and economic concerns might be more difficult.
The fishing communities know that, too. "It is in our best interests to rebuild the stock but we must also keep jobs," Anderson said. "We must keep the boats running and the fish available for customers to want to come."
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