Leadership in a Time of National Division

After a year-long campaign, the voters have spoken and President Obama will lead the country for another four years. But while the Electoral College was decisive, the popular vote was essentially split; as a group, the American people remain deeply divided over many critical issues facing our nation – from health care to national defense.

This week, while national attention has been focused on politics at the highest level, fishery managers along the west coast quietly demonstrated unity and leadership by voting to advance important protections for forage fish – the small and often forgotten fish that form the base of the ocean food web.

Why is this such a big deal? Because as in politics, fisheries management is often divisive and making progress requires leadership. When our officials take important steps to better protect the ocean we should give credit where credit is due.

Today, the California Fish and Game Commission and yesterday, members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, signaled commitments to policies that will help ensure enough forage fish remain in the ocean for the many predators, like whales, dolphins and seabirds, which are dependent upon them. When fully implemented through new regulations, these protections in the Pacific could be a model for the nation and an important first step in moving toward comprehensive ecosystem-based fishery management. That has my community – the conservation community- celebrating.

But it’s not just conservationists applauding the forward thinking leadership on forage fish. This week’s pair of votes shows that a genuine consensus has emerged that “little fish” have tremendous value to people as well as bigger fish, supporting fisheries and ocean related jobs that provide over $20 billion worth of economic activity throughout the region. That is why groups voicing support for forage fish protections included seafood businesses, tourism operators like whale watching boats, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, as well as conservation organizations up and down the coast.

In fact, California’s new policy was crafted by fishing and conservation interests (including Ocean Conservancy) working collaboratively, based on their shared interest in ensuring a healthy and productive ocean for all. But don’t get me wrong; there is more work to be done, including finalizing these commitments and getting them implemented in the water.

Resolving the differences that will likely emerge during these processes won’t be easy.  But like crossing the political aisle, when leaders put aside differences and seek common ground, progress can be made. In the long run, a healthy ocean depends on having more examples of the kind of leadership displayed by fishery managers this week on forage fish.

Our nation’s elected officials could learn a thing or two from those on the west coast who care about forage fish. There are benefits to working together.

Indeed, leadership matters.

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