Fishers, charter boat captains and boating and tackle shop owners from Massachusetts to Florida gathered outside the Capitol today to rally for an overhaul of federal fisheries laws they say are killing jobs and gutting the fishing industry.
The hundreds of participants in the "United We Fish" rally crowded a park beside the Capitol to ask Congress to rewrite a 3-year-old law that made a historic bid to end overfishing.
Waving signs and shouting, the fishers said they feel betrayed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and its implementation of strict new catch limits that threaten their businesses. They say federal fisheries managers have set unrealistic recovery goals based on flawed science that resulted in harsh cuts to their catches.
"We were told years ago that if we conserve, we would have more fishing opportunities; has that happened?" said Ray Bogan of the United Boatmen of New York and New Jersey, to shouts of "No!" from the crowd. "They said conserve and you will be rewarded ... it's a lie."
Wearing boots and camouflage, fishers waved signs that said "No Catch Shares," "Save the Humans," "Can't Even Catch a Break," and "Fix Magnuson Now."
As members of Congress and fishing leaders made speeches over the course of the three-hour rally, the crowd regularly shouted and cheered and periodically broke into chants, including "Jane's gotta go!" -- a call for the removal of Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act won overwhelming support in Congress in 2006. The law requires federal fisheries managers to end overfishing by 2010, rebuild most stocks within 10 years and base decisions on recommendations from scientific advisers. Fishing councils set rebuilding targets and catch limits for each fishery each year.
The strict new requirements were intended to mend a system in which fishery managers regularly set the catch above sustainable levels and fish stocks dwindled. Environmentalists and marine scientists have applauded the law for making strides to reverse the dangerous decline of fish species.
But faced with the strict new fishing limits that are the consequences of the act, fishers and the businesses that depend on them are pleading for lawmakers to extend those deadlines.
"We fish and we love to fish, and I don't want that taken away from us," said Eric Parker, a crew member of the Snow Goose, a charter fishing boat in New York, who attended the rally. Limits on summer flounder and sea bass could cut their days at sea by a third, Parker said.
The catch restrictions are particularly frustrating for fishers who say the stocks are abundant. They criticized NOAA for using out-of-date or inaccurate data to set the catch. For instance, Gloucester, Mass., mayor Carolyn Kirk said "you can walk on the cod" in Massachusetts, but the catch is severely restricted.
The reduced catch has also hit home for tackle shops and boat dealers, which were already seeing a slump in sales because of the economic downturn.
"Already, people were pretty skittish because of the economy, but now they are saying, 'Why buy it if I can't fish?'" said Tyler Neal, a boat salesman for Sea Ray-Scout of Charleston, S.C. "People don't just go out there to burn gas; they go to catch fish."
Valerie Zak, who owns Oceanside Bait and Tackle in Long Beach Island, N.Y., said restrictions on summer flounder and sea bass could cut her summer business by 25 to 50 percent.
"We are struggling already, and they are going to take that away from us?" said Zak. "This is ludicrous."
Eric Schwaab, the new director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, attended the rally as a spectator and said he understands the frustration of the fishermen. He defended the Magnuson Act for imposing needed requirements to end overfishing and said he would look for opportunities to aid fishers.
"I think the Magnuson Act did some very positive things to help focus attention on the benefits of ending overfishing and rebuilding stocks," Schwaab said. "The problem is, we're now at a point in time where some of those deadlines are looming ... and local communities are suffering from other economic challenges that make this more difficult."
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would roll back some of the strict requirements to end overfishing. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) has a bill in the House, H.R. 1584, that would make new exceptions to the requirement to rebuild fisheries within 10 years.
It has 25 co-sponsors, many of whom attended the rally to ask the fishers to press more lawmakers to get on board.
"You didn't come just to wave signs; you came to make a change here," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). "I'll tell you how you have to win here. You have to be a persistent bastard. You are going to persist."
Delegate Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), who chairs the House subcommittee that would have to first approve the bill, said this afternoon that the issue is not currently on her committee's schedule.
"If a request came in, we would certainly look at what their concerns are," Bordallo said.
In the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion bill, S. 1255, with just two co-sponsors: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and George LeMieux (R-Fla.). Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) plans to introduce his own legislation.