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Sustainable fisheries are facing a moratorium

Sustainable fisheries are facing a moratorium
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American wild-caught seafood is integral to the nation’s food supply and to American food security. We’ve been working hard to keep it that way in the face of climate change. The people who catch fish for a living experience climate impacts directly. We recognized it early and we’ve responded. In fact, U.S. fishermen have been part of the solution to habitat conservation and climate responses for decades.

Nonetheless, some politicians and environmental organizations have embraced a version of an initiative called 30x30 (“thirty by thirty”) that would damage our nation’s sustainable fisheries and robust fisheries management process. Broadly, 30x30 aims to conserve 30 percent of habitat worldwide by the end of the decade — 2030. The 30x30 approach has been embraced by President-elect Biden’s campaign, and there’s talk he will sign an executive order on his first day in office.

We’re eager to engage with the new administration to address climate impacts and protect habitat. Proactive and durable ocean policy changes need to happen with us, not to us. 

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Our organizations have advocated for strong ocean conservation for decades, and we’ve built a fisheries management system that will continue to provide enduring protections to ocean habitat while insisting fishermen participate. The results are striking: we’ve established deep-sea habitat protection areas covering over 45 percent of U.S. waters off the West Coast. In 1998 we prohibited trawling off the entire coast of Southeast Alaska. Recently, the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions enacted major deep-sea coral protections that prohibit the use of impactful gear in sensitive areas. 

Our work to conserve sensitive ocean spaces has helped make American fisheries the most sustainable in the world. Despite these accomplishments, the most connected and well-financed proponents of 30x30 are seeking to implement no-take marine protected areas in U.S. oceans without serious input from fishing stakeholders. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and his colleagues recently introduced H.R.8632, the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, which would require “protection” of at least 30 percent of the U.S. ocean by 2030 by banning “all commercial extractive use.”

It’s important to note that the “non-commercial” exemption in the bill was added late and appears to be sanctioned by recreational fishing groups and environmental organizations. This move would be puzzling if not for the politics. In much of the U.S. ocean, commercial and recreational fishermen use similar gear types, and in many fisheries recreational harvest accounts for half, or sometimes more, of catch. But overcoming the objections of the sportfishing lobby is a tall order, and this is a fight 30x30 proponents chose not to pick, biological justification notwithstanding.

Whether you are a sport or commercial fisherman or a seafood consumer, policies that circumvent our fishery management system set a bad precedent and needlessly remove public access to healthy and natural seafood resources. They also contravene biological science, which supports fisheries management’s optimized approach to conservation and social science, which shows us that conservation is enhanced when stakeholders are provided equitable opportunities to participate. 

We don’t need an unjustified moratorium on U.S. commercial fisheries in nearly a third of the ocean in order to achieve climate resilience and biodiversity protection. In fact, a ban on all commercial fisheries in 30 percent of U.S. waters would be a giant step backwards for biodiversity and climate change. U.S. fisheries increasingly support local food systems and shorten food supply chains — a climate positive. 

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It remains possible to fashion a U.S. 30x30 policy that is compatible with our fishery management institutions. Doing so would be relatively simple, but it would require acknowledging the gains fishermen and fisheries management processes have already achieved, while providing an equitable stakeholder role.

Are the proponents ready to engage? If they are, a 30x30 policy could be developed with goals that are directly compatible with biodiversity and fisheries management, while ensuring that serious discussions about climate change do not exclude coastal communities. If they aren’t, Americans will lose another piece of their maritime heritage, they’ll lose access to sustainably sourced seafood and coastal communities will be swept aside in a misdirected effort to address climate change.

Abandoning fishing communities when addressing the climate crisis is a disservice to our world-leading fisheries management system and to the people who risk their lives to feed the nation. But there’s still time for meaningful discussion with fisheries stakeholders. If Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration are serious about supporting working people, they must engage with working fishermen and women immediately, before executive orders issue or legislation passes. 

Ocean-based climate solutions cannot be achieved without including the people who work there.

Linda Behnken is a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, an association of small-scale fishermen based in Sitka, Alaska. Mike Conroy is an attorney and executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, based in San Francisco.