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On October 18, the Clean Water Act turns 42. When Congress passed the Act in 1972, it set a national goal to make all of our waters fishable and set a national policy that prohibits the dumping of toxic pollution into our waters.
If, like me, you were born after 1972, you’ve never lived in a world where America wasn’t committed to these noble ends. So it can be easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that our rivers were so polluted they caught on fire and we were losing up to a half million acres of wetlands each year.
Despite its successes, for the last third of its lifetime, the Clean Water Act has had an identity crisis. That’s because two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006 and subsequent federal agency actions left us without a clear understanding of which bodies of water the Act protects.
It’s not clear, for example, whether headwater trout streams and salmon spawning grounds fall under the Clean Water Act. These types of waters make up 60 percent of the stream miles in America and contribute to the drinking water of 117 million Americans – that’s one out of every three of us.
It’s also not clear whether waterfowl habitat like that in the Prairie Pothole region of the upper Midwest makes the cut. These waters are the nesting grounds for the majority of waterfowl in North America.
This confusion has reversed some of the remarkable gains our nation has enjoyed as a result of the Act. Of particular importance for sportsmen is a stunning 140 percent increase in the rate of wetlands loss, which translates to the destruction of critical waterfowl habitat and decreased hunting opportunities – an impact that grows with each passing year.
Earlier this year the federal government started a public rulemaking to resolve the problem. This should not have been a controversial step. Stakeholders of all stripes – not to mention the Supreme Court – asked for just such a rulemaking.
Unfortunately, before the ink on the proposal was even dry, critics began spouting hyperbolic misinformation designed to undermine the very rulemaking that they had asked for. This criticism culminated in a bill supported by 262 congressmen that would kill the rulemaking. These congressmen have effectively buried their heads in the sand and agreed to perpetuate the confusion that hinders effective use of the Clean Water Act.
Everyone acknowledges there’s a problem with Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Instead of reflexively and obstinately standing in opposition, let’s use this once in a generation opportunity to come up with a solution. Hunters and anglers have engaged in the process from the beginning and universally stood on the side of problem solving.
A suitable Clean Water Act anniversary present would be for all of us to recommit to completing the process to clarify the Act, improving the proposed rule and finalizing a rule that provides clarity and certainty to the regulated community while conserving fish and wildlife and sustaining America’s outdoor traditions.
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.
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