Fishermen: Ocean Planning Poses No Threat, Rather It Makes Good Business Sense
By Chris Brown, President Seafood Harvesters of America
Since the release of the Northeast Ocean Plan on May 25, 2016, and the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Plan issued on July 5, 2016, some have said ocean planning will create more regulation for ocean businesses.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. In stark contrast to these assertions, I would argue that it is essential for our survival. I, for one, am excited at the prospect that all agencies that affect my well-being will be doing business in a well lit room with every expectation that they will work diligently towards our collective betterment. What a concept!
As a successful fisherman who has worked the Northeast waters for 40 years, my concerns are the same as any good businessman. The first and most basic rule: keep it in the black, just like everybody else. But it is here that most of the similarities end. I conduct my enterprise in an ocean that is not mine harvesting fish that are the property of the nation. I participate in the management of my “inventory,” through a well defined council process that is guided by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It is our contract with the American people, ensuring that we will do no harm in the pursuit of our livelihoods. As a body of work MSA is dedicated to ensuring my survival. It is unyielding and it can be maddening, but few would argue the downside or value of our meaningful participation or the wisdom associated with deliberately protecting the resources and habitat that gives rise to all that feeds our hungry nation. The entire process is deliberately transparent, participatory and driven by science. It is a system that is dedicated to producing the greatest outcome for all of society. Is it perfect? Hell no! It’s just far better than anything else done anywhere in the world.
But for all businessmen, beyond inventory, it is also vital to have a degree of control of the environment in which we operate. Ultimately, the true value of your business is linked to the health of the resource as well as the stability of the political environment in which you operate. Without the political stability provided by a deliberate planning process our future is less certain, our value diminished and the nation’s food security placed foolishly in the hands of competing factions that care little of our 300-year journey and share a myopic view of the utility of our oceans.
In the past, fishermen didn’t have access to one of the key aspects of their business environment, namely how management decisions were made on the state and federal levels. Generally, fishermen were not involved in agency decisions that affected fish resources and grounds, siting of new, offshore projects, or even basic agency coordination for daily issues over licenses and safety protocols.
Ocean planning gives fishermen more control of their business environment than ever before because it involves them in the decision-making process. In the past, anyone who wanted to lay down an underwater cable, build an LNG terminal, or erect a windfarm — or any other project — developed his idea, approached state and federal agencies and then agencies invited public review of the project. But often public hearings went unnoticed and comment periods generated few letters. Likewise, nine times out of 10, the permitting agency hadn’t consulted with the agencies that manage fisheries, so they wouldn’t know if the proposed project would impact fishing grounds. Projects were a defensive fight every step of the way, and decisions were often made without the right data to show whose livelihoods would be impacted. Frankly, this approach cannot be good for developers either. Rethinking bad plans is costly to all parties. Effective design consideration can offset the need for mitigation and diminish animosity between users.
Ocean planning changes this. The Northeast Ocean Plan can be found at: neoceanplanning.org. In the four years that the Northeast Regional Planning Body (NERPB) took to develop this plan, state and federal agencies held conversations with thousands of stakeholders, including hundreds of fishermen, tourism interests, port authorities, Mom and Pop bait shops, energy developers, recreational sailing organizations, tribal leaders and many others whose livelihoods depend on the ocean. Data from these conversations and other resources were collected together in a single, public online source: the Northeast Ocean Data Portal.
When the NERPB approached fishermen we wanted to make sure state and federal managers had the right data so we explained where we fish, the water, habitat and weather conditions we see, the economic value of a nautical mile depending on species, what we’re catching, what gear we’re using, questions like this. From this kind of baseline data, managers created maps for each of ten economic sectors. These maps show the overlaps among different existing and proposed uses, such as fishing, shipping lanes, sand and excavation, recreational boating and proposed windfarms. Capturing the data that defines the existence and value of the commercial industry is a complex task. It is not yet perfected and there is a compelling need to update information frequently on an industry that is as dynamic as ours. In fishing, it is what it is, not what it was.
Now the portal is active and state and federal managers, including Betsy Nicholson, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Lead of the Coastal Services Center, have said publicly that agencies are committed to using the data portal before projects get underway, instead of addressing conflicts once a project is nearly a done deal.
Further, involving fishermen — and all stakeholders — doesn’t stop at developing the ocean plan itself. The Northeast Ocean Plan specifies that fishermen are to be involved and consulted on an ongoing basis as projects arise that could impact fish, habitats and the livelihoods of fishermen. Without this process we would enjoy the fate of any small business in the realm of economic giants and competing government agencies. As the saying goes, “Someone’s ox had to be gored.” In all probability it would be ours.
We have already seen the benefits of ocean planning in action. When the new windfarm slated to open off the coast of Rhode Island, Deepwater Wind, was first proposed it would have sited the turbines right through prime lobster grounds. Because Rhode Island had developed its Ocean Special Area Management Plan a state version of a regional ocean plan, approved in 2010, Governor Gina Raimondo brought lobsterman into the planning process early on. They explained that if the turbines were moved slightly they wouldn’t impact the fishery. The project opened in 2016, and Governor Raimondo has said the project’s success was based on collaborative planning that saved the developer years of permitting time.
Ocean planning gives fishermen a place to operate under existing law to work with state and federal agencies, windfarm developers, tourism interests, towing businesses, aquaculture enterprises, shipping companies — the many industries that depend on the ocean for their way of life. When I can sit in a roomful of savvy people and share viewpoints to craft a good outcome, I’m in favor of that. That’s participatory democracy, and you have a right and a privilege to participate.
Ocean planning provides fishermen a level of control and engagement they have never had before. Is it a totally new way of doing business? Yes, but Americans are innovators by nature. We can’t afford to be intellectually fearful, or balk at the issues of our day. Let’s face it… if you are not at the table then you are on the menu. The Great American fishery was once defined only by its enormity. In the future it will be defined by its resilience and adaptability. Ocean planning goes a long way to ensuring that we do not become collateral damage of more powerful ambitions and that we will remain viable small businessmen who proudly feed the many millions of people of our great nation.