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Obama to Announce Final Recommendations of Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and Creation of a New National Ocean Council

Diane Regas, Vice President - EDF Oceans Program

Diane Regas, Vice President - EDF Oceans Program

I am eagerly anticipating an event at the White House this afternoon; I am headed over for the official announcement of the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force.  I hear that the President will sign an Executive Order to implement the recommendations later this week and create a new National Ocean Council.  Once that’s done we will have a new policy to protect our oceans while making use of their abundant resources, and the structural changes in the government designed to make that policy a reality.

Some will probably look at this as a government re-organization, and ask, “When do those re-organizations matter?”  You might be tempted to answer “never”, but that’s not true.  When President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency the result was cleaner air to breathe, cleaner water to drink and greater safety from toxic pollution for everyone in this country.  None of those results happened overnight—some of them even took decades.

Today’s announcement by President Obama’s advisors could have the same positive impact on our oceans as Nixon’s EPA announcement had on our health and environment.  And like getting cleaner air and water, much of the work Obama has laid out for the oceans will take decades.  The leaders of this effort—especially CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley, Drs. Jane Lubchenco and John Holdren—will be able to look back decades from now and take credit for an important turning point for the oceans.

Because of their vision, the new National Ocean Council will take on the biggest problems our oceans face:  how do oceans and coastal communities adapt to climate change?  How do we restore ecosystems so that the oceans are healthy and produce healthy seafood?  How do we address practices on land that are polluting the oceans, creating vast dead zones?  How do we protect the fragile Arctic from the ravages of climate change?

I hope you are as eager as I am to see progress—I want these problems solved tomorrow.  But solving big problems right takes longer than that, so I applaud the Administration for taking the time to get the science right, and for creating a place at the table for important stakeholders like commercial and recreational fishermen and native communities.  The plans announced today mean every region of our oceans will finally get an integrated, comprehensive blueprint for how to get the most out of the oceans—and make sure the oceans are healthy in long run.

When our children and grandchildren head out to catch their dinner from an abundant ocean and can take their catch home to a house powered by sustainable ocean energy, they’ll have the National Ocean Council to thank for it.

Diane Regas is VP for Oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund and was one of the original co-chairs of the Subcommittee for the Integrated Management of Ocean Resources in 2005.

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NOAA Chief Promotes Transparency in Science Regarding BP Oil Disaster

Bob Dylan once sang that "you don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."  But if you're the part of the federal government charged with conducting scientific studies of the biggest environmental disaster in the nations history, and what you say profoundly impacts millions of people's lives and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, then you probably DO want a weather man to say which way the wind blows.

Meanwhile, everybody – me included – is growing more and more outraged at the scale of this disaster.   We want information about what’s really happening out there: where’s the oil? How much is there? What’s the toxicity? How will the ecosystem respond?

Caught in the middle is NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco.  She has the unenviable task of conducting scientific studies in the middle of this mess and she deserves credit for promoting government transparency in the science around the disaster.  As soon as results were validated Tuesday, NOAA communicated and released to the public data from the recent scientific mission of the R/V Weatherbird II that tested Gulf water.  This was an important step to build public confidence in the government’s handling of the disaster.

Crisis situations like the BP oil disaster remind us all that the public has a right to know what’s going on. While I—and I’m sure many others—are frustrated that many of our questions haven’t yet been answered, transparency in the results gives me confidence that we are getting the full story.

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Nobel Prize Winning Economist–Did She Really Take a Side?

Diane Regas, Associate Vice President - EDF Oceans ProgramWhen Nobel Prize winners speak, people tend to listen. Recent economics prize winner Elinor Ostrom was cited “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.” The governance of the commons is exactly the problem we face in fisheries—in the United States and the world.

This week Dr. Ostrom has been quoted in the catch shares debate in New England—and the quotes did not sound to me like the work that Dr. Ostrom has done. So we at EDF asked her what she thought. Here is what she said:

“I am quite distressed to find that I am being characterized as supporting or opposing particular policies to manage fisheries in New England. To be clear, I have not taken a side in this debate.

“Fishermen and fishing communities all over the world are facing loss of the ocean resources that they depend on. What my work and the work of other scholars shows above all is that the issues involved in managing natural resources are complex. A range of approaches have worked in different places and under different circumstances.

"I have not yet had the opportunity to study the “sectors” approach in detail, and so do not have a view on how it is likely to perform. What we can be confident of is that reducing overfishing and achieving sustainability for the long run will require good-faith effort, hard work, and cooperation among local communities and government authorities.”

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Catch Share Options Include Community Fishing Associations

Diane Regas, Associate Vice President - EDF Oceans ProgramCommunity Fishing Associations are a good idea.  It might surprise you to hear that from Environmental Defense Fund.  Sara Randall and Nate Grader got our position wrong, but their exploration of Community Fishing Associations (CFAs) got a lot of other things right, and those other things are worth paying attention to.  Randall and Grader take a look at what CFAs might accomplish, and some of the structural and regulatory challenges that face these new systems.  They conclude that CFAs can provide a way to promote sustainable fishing. We agree.

Community Fishing Associations–if designed well–can successfully address fishing community concerns about maintaining traditional access for fishermen by “anchoring” quota in a community.  We see CFAs as a prime example of the flexibility and creativity allowed under catch share systems to address not only conservation and economics, but a wide range of social values.  That is why EDF is working with fishermen, scientists and managers in New England to implement "sectors," a form of catch shares based on cooperatives, and we are working to advance CFAs in New England and the West Coast.

Catch shares are not “one-size-fits all.” There are several viable options to designing catch shares, ranging from IFQs, to community-held quotas like CFAs, to area-based management approaches (also known as Territorial Use Rights Fisheries or TURFs).  We would call all of these options–properly designed–“catch shares.” 

Whatever you call them, all of these approaches need a scientifically-determined catch limit, allocations to accountable entities (e.g., individuals, cooperatives, communities), and monitoring and enforcement to ensure fishermen are staying under their allocations.  Contrary to Randall and Grader’s assertion that we just need to get the Total Allowable Catches (TACs) right to end over-fishing, fisheries need TACs set right and a well-working mechanism to make sure that the TAC is actually met.  TACs alone have a relatively poor track record in fisheries management. 

We want fisheries management to work; that’s why we have urged NOAA to create a level playing field for various fishery management alternatives, and then make sure every plan measures up.  A level playing field means holding all fisheries management plans accountable for getting results:  improved conservation, improved science and better economic conditions.  It’s the results that matter!

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Is the Debate Over?

As originally posted on Grist.org

Diane Regas, Associate Vice President - EDF Oceans ProgramIn the current issue of Science twenty-one leading ocean scientists declared a truce—it’s as if Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner agreed to stop the chase for a day. The paper was authored by many of the biggest names on all sides of the debate on ending overfishing—Boris Worm, Ray Hilborn, Andy Rosenberg and Chris Costello. So what are the terms?

First, they agree on what I will call a “Goldilocks” catch level (You know—not too hot, not too cold, but just right.) If we fish too much, then fish get smaller, catch levels eventually go down and lots of species end up on the road to ruin. If we fish too little, we can keep the fish in the oceans healthy, but fish for people goes way down. Fishing just right would mean aiming to catch about 20 percent of ocean fish every year. At that level, fish would be bigger, the long term catch would be stable at a high level, and the news for ecosystems—whales, dolphins, and turtles—would be good too; at least 90% of species would be at healthy levels-which is quite a bit better than we are doing now.

The second part of the paper is where the scientists waded into the hot debate on what management works to get to the Goldilocks level. The scientists looked at the big ocean places that are making progress and asked managers what worked. The first thing they found was that most places use a mix of approaches for the mix of ecosystem types-so there is not a panacea. Pretty much everyone will agree to that.

What comes out on top, though? It comes down to effectively implementing caps on catch levels using two key tools: reducing the Total Allowable Catch and putting in place catch shares. (You can look at their table where a solution was identified in at least five of the ten fisheries, and was usually ranked an “essential” part of the solution.) This is strong stuff!

There are lots of questions yet to answer—like why is it that a catch share program always had a reduced allowable catch level? Is the theory right that catch shares make it easier to set the catch level properly? And what makes it possible for enough stakeholders to agree to close off areas of the ocean? What are the keys to community co-management, which seems to work in small-scale fisheries? I expect that the scientists will go back to their corners and duke out those questions. I can’t wait.

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High Country News Reports on the Successes and Challenges of Catch Shares

Diane Regas is Associate Vice President for EDFThe latest issue of High Country News has a good story on one type of catch share program—for crab in Alaska. I found Matt Jenkins’ take on catch shares balanced and engaging—he covers the benefits of catch shares and fairly points out some of the challenges this fishery has faced.

Among Alaska crab fishermen, safety, economic stability and resource sustainability have all improved. And while crew pay has doubled, there are fewer crew jobs than there were. Jenkins also explains why crew members are finding it is a lot harder to work their way up from deckhand to captaining their own boat. (Some of the design mistakes in the crab program, I am glad to say, are not allowed under the current fisheries law.)

The good news is that well-designed catch shares have been and can be designed to protect community and crew interests too. The red snapper catch share in the Gulf of Mexico and the halibut and sablefish catch share in Alaska are good examples of how catch shares have improved economics and resource sustainability while at the same time enhancing the stability of fishing communities. 

And other new ideas are being tried out across the country, including limiting consolidation, devoting a part of the quota to conservation or to address community concerns, creating community quota banks, and creating loan funds that can help keep quota in local communities. (Interestingly, the design of the crab program was determined by a special Act of Congress which helped lock in some serious problems—and the design did not include some of these creative options.)

Catch shares are already proving that they can end the race for fish and prevent – and even reverse – the global collapse of fisheries.  Catch shares present a new opportunity for fisheries at a time when many ocean fisheries and the communities that depend on them face a steep decline. As more fisheries move to catch shares, careful and creative design solutions will help improve catch shares for all the stakeholders.

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