Ocean Currents

Department of Commerce to Congress: We’ll Break It So You Can “Fix” It


Documents, available below, show they’re risking fishermen’s livelihoods

Back in June, political appointees in the Department of Commerce issued a short-sighted decision to let private recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico overfish red snapper, breaking the law that keeps fishermen from catching so many fish each year that they damage the resource. With no other options available and in recognition that the department’s action would harm fishermen and the resource, Ocean Conservancy filed a lawsuit. As part of that suit, we now have the internal government emails and memos that clearly show these administration officials knew exactly how harmful their decision would be.

These documents, called the “administrative record,” paint a clear picture: The Department of Commerce knew their decision was illegal, they knew it would hurt fishermen and deeply undermine management in the Gulf, and they did it with the intent of getting out from under the rules that ensure our fisheries are managed responsibly and sustainably for future generations.

We have obtained internal calculations they ran that showed them that their chosen path would result in catching 50% more fish than the amount scientists said was sustainable. That’s illegal under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

We have memos where they discuss how their course of action would hurt fishermen next year. In their own words, “the recreational season next year would be significantly reduced” and commercial and charter for-hire fishermen, who also share this resource, could also face reductions as a result of recreational overfishing. But the department pushed forwards anyway, jeopardizing businesses and coastal communities that depend on access to a healthy fishery.

And finally, the documents clearly show us what the end game is. As they said, approval of the season extension would “put the ball squarely in the court of Congress. Congress would need to act to prevent reduced catch limits for all fishing sectors next year. This problem will not be able to be addressed through the fishery management system without a change in law.”

In the memos, they call their decision to undermine the law, damage the resource, and jeopardize the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities, “the leadership Congress is asking of us.”

Real leadership would have been working with fishermen from all sectors and other stakeholders to find solutions to the problems facing recreational fishermen in the Gulf–finding more funding for and improving data collection programs, working with states, fishermen and stakeholders to solve the problem of shortening federal seasons due to overlapping issues with more state water catch and faster catch rates of larger fish, and improving accountability in a sector that frequently exceeds its catch limits.

Instead, they are playing a game of chicken with Congress. They have manufactured a crisis in the fishery by allowing so much overfishing that now everyone could get hurt next year. The Department of Commerce would have you believe that the only way out of this situation is to weaken the laws that keep our fisheries sustainable. We disagree. And that’s why our court case is so important–we want to chart the course for real sustainability, better data, successful rebuilding, stable and profitable fishing businesses, and good days on the water for generations to come.


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