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The phrases “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” were likely not given much thought by fishermen across the Gulf Coast before April 2010.
But, any angler who has followed the ongoing case being made by the Department of Justice against BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill certainly read the newspaper articles in early September littered with those two phrases. According to U.S District Judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the civil trial against the companies responsible for the largest oil spill in America’s history, BP committed a litany of negligent acts and used unsafe practices causing millions upon millions of barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf and subsequently across beaches, bays and marshes, some of which are oiled still.
How many millions are still to be determined by Barbier. The Justice Department is making the case that 4.2 million barrels came through the bent drill pipe nearly one mile below the Gulf’s surface. BP, of course, says it’s responsible for about half that amount while maintaining the spill was a series of unfortunate accidents it had little control over.
The finding of gross negligence means BP’s penalties under the Clean Water Act will swell to $4,300 per barrel, making the determination of how many barrels were released of extreme importance in settling what the ultimate civil fine will total. The fine could have been as low as $1,100 a barrel had BP not cut so many corners with willful disregard for the safety of its workers and the health of the Gulf. If BP’s estimate for barrels spilled is accurate, the fine will be about $10 billion for its gross negligence. That total could be in excess of $18 billion if the Justice Department is right.
Barbier is expected to rule on the spill’s totals in early 2015, weeks before the five-year anniversary of the accident that took 11 men from their families and sent the Gulf’s ecosystem and economies into a tail spin from which some have yet to recover. That decision is being anxiously awaited by state and federal agencies, conservation groups and coastal communities because it will determine how much money the RESTORE Act Council, states, counties, parishes and research institutes will have to spend on ecosystem and economic restoration efforts.
Every milestone, public engagement opportunity, judge’s decision and project announcement is an opportunity to reflect and be reminded of how the Gulf’s anglers, commercial fishermen, business owners and communities got to this point. Those who revel in the Gulf’s recreational bounty and make their living off its resources don’t need to be told by a judge BP was grossly negligent. The images of oil-soaked pelicans, beaches and marshes and the ongoing uncertainty about the future of fisheries remain fresh in many memories. The wounds that have healed are likely to be reopened for some next April as media attention focuses on the state of the Gulf five years since gross negligence caused tragedy.
There is also opportunity to reflect on how so many concerned about the impacts of the oil spill and the decades of habitat loss in the Gulf joined together to implore Congress to make sure that the penalties from the spill came back to repair the ecosystems and communities damaged the most. Recreational fishing and hunting certainly suffered at BP’s hands, which is why so many sportsmen across the country united to push for passage of the RESTORE Act.
Trips were made to Washington by avid outdoorsmen to talk directly with Congressional staff. Businesses that support hunting and fishing joined arms and talked about how healthy habitats throughout the Gulf are essential for them to thrive and be capable of employing millions of Americans. Sportsmen’s organizations found common ground with environmental groups who also wanted spill fines to improve fishing habitat and restore ecosystems.
Despite Congressmen from outside the Gulf(even some in the region) and some state officials insisting the RESTORE Act had no chance of passing, hunters and fishermen leaned harder and harder until Congress made the prudent choice and passed the bill.
More than two years since the bill passed, the time has come again for hunters and fishermen to continue to be actively involved in the recovery and sustainability of the Gulf. The states are soliciting project ideas this fall that they can begin working on and can submit to the Restore Council for consideration for funding.
All of the projects and initiatives needed to make Gulf fishing better, from restoring marshes, mangroves and barrier islands to better management and science to education programs to needed repairs and expansion of docks, boat launches and artificial reefs are all eligible for funding. The states have asked for recommendations. They recognize how important recreational fishing is to coastal economies.
As the picture becomes clearer about how large the funding source may be, there is certainly time for recreational fishermen to reflect and appreciate the work it took to secure the funds. However, the harder task is ensuring the needs of fish and fishermen are addressed with those funds.
This guest post was provided by Stephanie Vatalaro, Director of Communications, at the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.
You may not realize it, but as an angler, you play an important role in the protecting our nation’s aquatic natural places and the wildlife that lives there. Each time you buy a fishing license, register your boat, purchase fishing gear or boat fuel, you’re contributing to state conservation efforts to keep our waterways clean and fish populations healthy. Take Me Fishing calls it ‘conservation through participation,’ and our mission is to get more people involved in fishing and boating to support these critical funds. Working alongside groups like TRCP, who work to protect and maintain quality places to fish and accessibility of our marine resources, we hope to preserve our nation’s fishing resources generations to come.
Here’s how your participation in fishing helps support conservation:
I was in an overcrowded and overheated hotel conference room in St. Louis, Missouri, talking about sage grouse when I started thinking about Chesapeake Bay striped bass.
What do sage grouse have to do with striped bass?
Well, both are iconic species, the very essence of the habitats they occupy. And both are widely sought by American sportsmen. Yet the future of each is uncertain, which should give hunters and anglers of all stripes a reason for pause: Increasingly it seems that the very species that define us as sportsmen find themselves in dire straits.
Just a couple weeks ago, in another hotel conference room in Annapolis, Maryland, the director of the Maryland Fisheries Service assured attendees at a symposium organized by the Coastal Conservation Association-Maryland that there is no striped bass crisis. But that does not mean fishery managers and fishermen aren’t worrying about the state of the Atlantic striper population.
When it comes to managing striped bass, officials care most about two factors: fishing mortality (i.e. the removal of fish from the stock due to fishing activities) and the spawning stock biomass (the number of female fish old enough to reproduce). When the spawning stock biomass drops, fishing mortality needs to drop with it; the arithmetic for a thriving fishery couldn’t be much clearer. For a decade, the striped bass spawning stock biomass has been falling, with a variety of factors, including habitat quality, nutritional issues and disease, all playing a role. But fishing pressure has not followed the downward trend. This means that striped bass may be subject to a fishing pressure that is unsustainable, promising very real problems for the fishery in the not too distant future.
There is no better way to ensure a crisis than by seeing one coming and doing nothing. While perhaps not a crisis today, a problem exists in striped bass country that requires action. Some combination of bigger minimums, reduced creels and/or shorter seasons are all on the table as fishery managers attempt to get out in front of a catastrophe in a major recreational fishery. The most aggressive steps will likely assure the best results, putting the fishery back on track in the shortest order. Of course, in exchange for maintaining the status quo today, some will champion a tepid response that kicks even tougher choices further down the road. Recreational anglers should reject this short-sightedness and support what the science indicates needs to happen.
And that is where we come back to the sage grouse, a species that is truly on the brink. Once widely hunted with long seasons and liberal bag limits, the federal government and 11 Western states are wringing their collective hands over a potential listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. In striper country, we actually have the chance to write a different kind of story for our own iconic species.
I love the game of chasing chukar and watching bird dogs work the sagebrush of arid ranges in my home state of Oregon. Earlier this month, I decided to take my chances on another upland bird: the greater sage grouse. With the controversy surrounding the bird and its possible listing in 2015 under the Endangered Species Act, I decided to apply for a controlled hunt permit with the hope that this wouldn’t be my last opportunity to pursue the bird.
The sage grouse is a Western icon, known for its unique, breast-inflating courtship dance. It inhabits sagebrush rangelands throughout the West. State and federal agencies, ranchers, environmentalists and sportsmen are working diligently and cooperatively to prevent the bird’s ESA listing, which would eliminate any future opportunity for sportsmen to hunt sage grouse – and would have significant implications for other resource uses across 11 states.
The sagebrush ecosystem where these magnificent birds thrive is also home to more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many pursued by sportsmen. Mule deer, pronghorn, elk and other species all need healthy, intact sagebrush habitat for their survival. If we imaging a huge tent or umbrella with all these species protected beneath it, conserving sage grouse habitat translates into good wildlife and rangeland conservation. Sagebrush conservation is good for our nation’s economy, too, especially in rural communities.
Oregon is one of the few states a person can hunt sage grouse with a controlled hunting permit, with a two-bird limit per permit. In 2013, 659 people hunted sage grouse throughout Central and Southeast Oregon. Each of these sportsmen spent money on gas, food, lodging and gear for each hunt, and those dollars get distributed across rural areas all across the state.
After the postcard arrived in the mail validating that I drew a permit, the pre-planning began. My shotgun had not been fired for months and needed to be fitted, so I delivered it to a local gunsmith. Next, I had to decide where to go. The area I drew was in the Lakeview Bureau of Land Management district. Within that unit there is more than 1 million acres of public land available for hunting. I called the district biologist and a couple ranchers for their recommendations on places to go. I studied the BLM district maps for access roads and coordinated meeting a friend who also drew a tag. The trip was coming together.
With my gear packed and the dog ready to go, I began the five-hour journey to my destination. Some might wonder why I would hunt a bird that only has a bag limit of two and only a weeklong season. I see this as an opportunity to hunt a new place, experience wide-open spaces and watch bird dogs do what they do best – find birds!
The next morning we woke up early to get the dogs ready and drink that first cup of joe. Driving down the bumpy road anticipating the first bird, the dogs could sense our excitement. We parked near a spring, got the collars on the dogs and dusted off the guns. The sagebrush aroma filled my lungs, and Cedar, my pudalpointer, started working like a veteran. Though he never had hunted sage grouse before, he worked with authority searching for birds. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
We walked miles covering a flat, and after a few hours, we saw movement in the distance. It was a covey of sage grouse. The cover was low, and we were exposed, just like the birds, so we decided to walk a wide circle around them and approach them up wind. Keeping our eyes on the birds, we slowly moved in. They quickly spotted us and started walking. Soon they were out of shooting range, eventually flying off, splitting in two directions and landing a couple hundred yards away.
We decided to break apart and ambush the birds. Cedar and I worked the near side while Mellissa and her dogs worked in the distance. We eventually spotted the birds and moved in. They held, and Cedar crept in. The sage grouse looked at us. I moved in closer and closer. Finally they took wing. I took a shot, and a bird fell. Cedar circled around for the retrieve and pranced back with the smile of success.
Sportsmen can’t afford another loss of opportunity if the sage grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nor can sportsmen remain silent – our voices must be heard, and we must advocate for solid state and federal conservation plans for sage grouse that also will protect other species we enjoy pursuing. With hunter participation declining across the West, we must act and get involved to ensure sage grouse habitat is conserved and a listing is avoided. Sportsmen must define our own destiny and help conserve wildlife to retain all our opportunities – as well as those for future generations.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More