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Fish are creatures of their environment. Without strong laws to prevent water pollution and widescale habitat loss, the fish will be no more -- and where the fish go, so go the fishermen.
Most fish species spend only part of their lives in midocean. During their juvenile stage, most live and thrive in the nearshore environment of streams, rivers and estuaries for the most critical parts of their life cycle. Nearshore waters, including rivers, streams and coastal wetlands, are essential nursery areas for about 75 percent of the entire U.S. commercial fish and shellfish landings. These sensitive ecosystems are valuable national assets which contribute about $46 billion per year to the U.S. economy as well as its healthiest food source. Yet all this has been put at risk by the continuing destruction of wetlands, watersheds and estuary habitat that these species depend upon for their very existence.
Environmental regulations exist because policy makers finally realized that a healthy environment is the ultimate source of all wealth. However, there is a strong national movement afoot to roll these protections back because, in the short-term, these protections are inconvenient barriers to unrestricted development and short-term profiteering. This movement may now have a majority of votes in Congress and in many state legislatures. These forces have mobilized to roll back and gut those very laws which protect our fisheries, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act itself. It is time for our industry to stand up and be counted against any effort to demolish the environmental protections which fish -- and fishermen -- need to survive.
The crown jewel of all environmental protection is the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In spite of the problems the ESA may have created for individual fishermen, it is in many ways the last hope for restoration of whole species such as salmon. Without a strong ESA, the only available remedy for species' recovery is closing down the fishery. This is exactly what has happened to the salmon industry to date -- as the productivity of onshore habitat declined, as fewer and fewer fish survived to reach the ocean, it has been the fishermen who have been cut back over and over again, and who have almost singlehandedly paid the price of inland environmental destruction on a massive scale. This stituation exists because under the Magnuson Act fishery managers can only manage fishermen -- they have no legal jurisdiction whatsoever over actions onshore which destroy the biological foundations of the fishery itself.
Thus whole watersheds can be destroyed, salmon runs battered to extinction and rivers polluted to the point of catching fire, and yet the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) can do nothing about it -- until their ESA authority has been triggered by a listing. The ESA is thus the key to watershed restoration and salmon protection throughout the region. It is also the only hope for putting a stop to onshore practices which destroy fishermen's livelihoods.
That's not to say that the ESA is a perfect law. However, its flaws lie in the fact that it is too weak, not too strong. Under current law there are no deadlines on recovery plans, so species can sit there on the brink of extinction for years without any real effort to save them. Current law also does not promise full recovery, only maintenance of reproducing populations. Recovery efforts are bureaucratic and poorly funded. The recovery planning process also needs to be much more open, so we can avoid a repeat of the southern sea otter situation. These flaws, however, are fixable and should be remedied as soon as possible.
What should not be debatable is the need for a strong law itself. The ESA has been the legal basis for every suit filed by fishermen's groups to protect habitat and to force water policy reforms in the Columbia River and the Sacramento Delta. The fishing industry would be devastated if this last barrier to extinction of the species it depends upon were removed.
The fishing industry represents a major economic force which is directly dependent upon a healthy environment. It is vitally important that our voice be heard as the ESA and other environmental protection laws we depend upon come on the chopping block in the new Congress. It is also vitally important that we stand up as an industry for clean water, healthy watersheds and the stringent protection of the species upon which we depend for our livelihoods.
The ESA is not the enemy, it is only the messenger. Listing a species is like dialing 911 when you need an ambulance. It should be used rarely, but when it is needed it is invaluable. Often it means the difference between life and death.
PCFFA is the west coasts largest organization of commercial fishermen. PCFFAs Southwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370 and by phone (415)561-5080. PCFFAs Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370 and by phone (541)689-2000. PCFFAs web site is at <http://www.pcffa.org> or PCFFA can be reached by email at <email@example.com>.
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