Earlier this year, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) suffered a little-known defeat: His once-popular amendment to stop fishery catch shares failed on the House floor.
Now ocean advocates are using that defeat -- and Southerland's outlook on fishing regulations -- in their bid to unseat the lawmaker they call "ocean enemy No. 1."
Southerland has long railed against catch shares, calling them a "cap and trade for the ocean." The relatively new practice departs from traditional limits on fishing seasons and instead divides overall catch among fishermen.
It's a narrow issue, but one that the activist group Ocean Champions thinks will resonate with voters in Florida's 2nd District, where Southerland is in danger of losing his seat to Democrat Gwen Graham. The district comprises the eastern Panhandle and the Big Bend, including Tallahassee and Panama City.
"We have found that issues that we care about -- the fishing issue and the jobs issue -- really connect" with voters, said David Wilmot, the group's president. Local fishermen, he added, are worried about their livelihood and want Congress to stay out of regional fisheries management.
The group found its hook in the defeat of Southerland's catch-share amendment in May. In the past, the amendment -- which prohibits new catch-share programs -- was easily attached to spending bills, even once making it into law.
But in a reversal, lawmakers voted 185-223 to keep it off the fiscal 2015 Commerce, Justice and science spending bill (E&ENews PM, May 30).
The group recently spent $35,000 on an ad insinuating that the amendment supports big government.
"He'd let Washington bureaucrats manage local fisheries," Billy Archer, a charter boat captain, intones in the ad. "That's a bad idea that can mean fewer jobs and fewer fish. This year I'm voting to protect our way of life, sustainable Gulf fishing and our coastal economy."
Matt McCullough, a spokesman for Southerland, dismissed the attacks as out of touch.
"As a lifelong Florida fisherman, Steve understands the needs of our coastal communities, and he's fighting to preserve public access to a recreational fishery worth $16.5 billion to the Gulf region," he said. "Radical environmental groups like Ocean Champions are just as happy forcing our fishermen off the water and out of business. Their false attacks aren't working because fishermen know Steve is striking a balance between conservation and commerce that will strengthen the fishery and our economy for years to come."
Both Southerland and Graham, the daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), have made fishing issues part of their campaigns, though it's far from the focus. Like their counterparts in other Gulf of Mexico states, local fishermen are most concerned about the red snapper fishery and its ever-shrinking recreational fishing season. Last year's season was nine days long, prompting a debate over whether to change how the fishery is managed (E&ENews PM, June 27).
Southerland has long angered environmentalists with his vocal opposition to the Obama administration's efforts to revamp ocean policy and expand federal protection of waters. In 2012, Ocean Champions spent more than $350,000 in his first re-election race, mostly funding attacks on Southerland for broad, nationwide issues. Southerland ended up winning against former Democratic state lawmaker Al Lawson by 6 points.
This time around, Wilmot said the group has so far spent $200,000 and plans to spend $400,000.
The race is listed as a tossup by The Cook Political Report and is one of the Democrats' best chances of flipping a Republican-held House seat this November. Last week, the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Graham's bid (E&ENews PM, Sept. 2).
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