Thursday, July 27, 2017

In an unprecedented move, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross overrules a fish-catch limit

Summer flounder
(Boston Globe illustration)
Earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross dismissed a report from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that concluded that New Jersey was violating a conservation plan for summer flounder, also called fluke. "The decision, which effectively allows New Jersey to harvest more summer flounder, marked the first time the federal government had disregarded such a recommendation by the commission, and it drew a swift rebuke from state officials along the East Coast," David Abel reports for The Boston Globe.

Congress established the multi-state commission 75 years ago to manage fishing in order to maintain a sustainable supply. The commission lowered catch limits after it found that that summer flounder were being overfished, based on government surveys that found their population was down almost 25 percent since 2010. "If the population falls another 14 percent, reaching a critical threshold for the ability of the fishery to rebuild, commissioners will be required by their rules to reduce quotas drastically or implement a region-wide moratorium on catching fluke," Abel reports.

New Jersey, a member of the commission, proposed an alternative plan, but the commission rejected it after its scientists said that plan would result in nearly 94,000 more fish being caught. Ross, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, overruled the commission and allowed New Jersey to go ahead with its plan. Members of the commission, fishing officials, and regional NOAA officials were furious. "They said it was unprecedented for a commerce secretary to make a decision without seeking their input," Abel reports. "Such rulings are routinely vetted by NOAA’s regional officials and scientists, who review the commission’s recommendations and then prepare the agency’s response, they said."

New Jersey fishermen argue that the commission's recommended limits would have made it difficult to catch and keep any fluke other than the large females that replenish the flounder population.

The broader impact of the decision remains unknown. Some fishing officials worry that Ross' decision sets a precedent for states to reject the commission's findings and appeal to the federal government whenever they don't like what they're hearing. And if summer flounder are overfished to the point where the population can't rebuild itself, that could impact the marine ecosystem and the coastal economies that rely on it.

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