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Fish on Fridays: The (Nonsensical) Politics of Fisheries Funding

SOURCE: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Fisherman Larry Collins stands next to his boat the Autumn Gale at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California.

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Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

All eyes in Washington are focused up these days. They’re peering cautiously at that ever-encroaching debt ceiling and the economic ruin pundits and politicians are forecasting if we allow ourselves to bump into it. Meanwhile, spending-phobia has gripped the less headline-grabbing, more mundane aspects of congressional operations as well. So we’re going to spend a bit of time today in one of Capitol Hill’s metaphorical windowless rooms crunching numbers to find out what Congress is doing to fund (or not fund) fisheries management.

Let’s start with a quick note about the congressional appropriations process. Per the Constitution, Congress holds the “power of the purse.” The president asks for money by submitting a budget but the legislature dictates how much will actually be spent.

Like all pieces of legislation—recall your “Schoolhouse Rock”—spending (also known as appropriations) bills originate in committee. In this case, that’s the Appropriations Committee, which passes them on, accompanied by an explanatory report, for consideration of the full body. Ultimately, both House and Senate must pass identical versions of legislation that are then sent to the president to be signed into law. The bill that contains funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and thus for fisheries management, is the Commerce, Justice, and Science, or CJS, Appropriations Act.

House appropriators talked a good game this year in the CJS bill’s report, stating “healthy levels of investment in scientific research are the key to long-term economic growth.” One would think that in these days of anemic job growth, 9.2 percent unemployment, and an angry electorate, if Congress held “the key to long-term economic growth,” they might use that key to unlock America’s potential. Instead, line-in-the-sand politics rose up and trumped common sense. In short, the “cut spending now” mantra seems to have all but obliterated the more reasoned and storied catchphrase of entrepreneurs everywhere: “You have to spend money to make money.”

So let’s take a look at a few specific instances in which House appropriators have decided to try creating jobs by slashing spending. For each entry, the first number in parentheses will be the level of funding in the FY 2012 House CJS bill, the second number the president’s budget request for 2012, and the third will be the level at which the program was funded in 2011.

The overall budget for the National Marine Fisheries Service ($685M; $895M; $910M)

The House proposes cutting $210 million, or 24 percent, from the 2011 budget for the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, the branch of NOAA responsible for all fisheries and living marine resources management. Not a strong start for the science-first crowd. But to really find out where these cuts will hit hardest, we have to dig deeper, down to specific programs, or “line items” that fall within NMFS’s purview.

The National Catch Share Program ($22M; $54M; $43.9M)

The administration’s signature fisheries management program is designed to promote use of a management structure for fisheries in which the total allowable catch is divided up and doled out to fishermen who can then choose to catch their quota of fish or trade it to other fishermen. This policy fared relatively well in last year’s spend cycle, but this year appropriators cited “ongoing concerns” about the program and included a “more modest investment.” Fifty percent more modest to be precise.

Such a reduction will be felt most painfully in areas where catch share management has already taken hold. In New England, for example, fishermen operating under a catch share system are already extremely worried about an end to federal subsidies for the costs of monitoring their catch. This budget would make it a virtual certainty that this assistance would end next year, potentially jeopardizing the viability of the system. That’s because if the feds don’t pay the costs of monitoring, the industry will have to pick up the tab.

While on the topic of catch shares, I should also mention one notable amendment that Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) included in last year’s funding bill but hasn’t yet appeared in this one. Rep. Jones’s amendment prevented funding from being used to implement new catch share systems in much of the country. Its absence is a positive sign, but without additional funding for catch shares, the ban on implementation may be moot because managers simply may not be able to afford them.

Stock assessments ($63.8M; $67.1M; $53.8M)

The committee went out of its way to recognize that the shortage of timely stock assessments—the scientific research that determines how much fish fishermen can catch—“has caused significant problems” and that the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act requires managers to set hard annual catch limits for all fisheries based on the best available science.

It’s noteworthy that this program received more than a $10 million boost from the 2011 funding level, but it remains drastically underfunded. As a result, stock assessments will retain high levels of uncertainty, and that means catch limits will be kept lower than perhaps they otherwise would have been. Because managers are prevented by law from allowing overfishing to continue, when the science is subpar, they must err on the side of caution and set lower limits. That takes money out of fishermen’s pockets.

Cooperative research ($7M; $7.2M; $10.1M)

Cooperative research programs, in which fishermen and scientists partner to collect data, are an increasingly popular tool. They provide a win-win partnership in which each group learns from the other about the complexity of their work. They also gather data that improves the quality of stock assessments, and they help build partnerships and relationships among stakeholders that can otherwise be somewhat contentious. Yet the committee bill cuts funding by 30 percent from 2011 levels.

Marine and Aviation Operations and Maintenance ($145M; $188.5M; $154.8M)

This funding is not directly linked to the fisheries budget but it allows NOAA to operate vessels for fisheries research. So the House is effectively keeping NOAA’s research fleet from carrying out a third of its work by cutting more than 30 percent from the president’s request. This is particularly odd given the assertion that the committee “supports the further utilization of fishery independent data” or data that doesn’t come from tracking what fishermen catch. If the data doesn’t come from fishermen, it comes from NOAA’s research fleet. Which was just cut by 30 percent. A head-scratcher for sure.

Habitat Conservation and Management ($25.1M; $53.6M; $49.8M)

It’s a fact of nature that fish, like people, need a healthy habitat to survive. It seems logical, then, that if one’s goal is to bring back fish stocks, one might want to start by protecting the areas where the fish live. And yet this bill halves spending for habitat management and restoration. Not much more to be said about this one.

NOAA released its annual Status of Stocks report the day after the House Appropriations Committee passed the CJS bill with its promises of jobs first and “healthy levels of investment” in science. According to NOAA, commercial and recreational fisheries already contribute $72 billion per year to the U.S. economy and support 1.9 million jobs. Fully rebuilt fish stocks would boost those figures by $31 billion and 500,000 jobs.

There’s no question our elected representatives are in a bind when it comes to making budget decisions. The twin mandates of belt tightening and job creation are perched on legislators’ shoulders, with one whispering in their left ears to “cut, cut, cut” and the other whispering in their right ears to “grow, grow, grow.” And every time they take from one pot of money—whether it’s fisheries management or education or funding the military—some of their constituents feel slighted.

But here the committee has gone out of its way to explicitly identify a greater investment in science as a potential solution—a means of putting people back to work, supporting and eventually growing an industry that sustains communities and puts food on our tables. And then, in the same breath, it advances policies undermining that very same solution.

That makes no sense at all. Even in Washington.

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress. Follow CAP’s ocean program on Twitter @OceanProgress.

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This is part of a regular column: Fish on Fridays

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