WASHINGTON (Nov. 22, 2017)—An unprecedented Trump administration decision over the summer that overruled an interstate fishing commission has drawn the ire of critics who worry that keeping a healthy and viable supply of flounder in the Atlantic Ocean is being sacrificed to commercial profits.
While the fight over fish largely has been out of the public eye, it has implications for Maryland and other coastal states. Critics charge the controversy further underscores environmental backsliding by a White House beholden to business interests seeking fewer restrictions on the potentially harmful exploitation of natural resources.
In July, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross overruled a recommendation by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission finding New Jersey out of compliance with proposed 2017 harvest limits of summer flounder along the Atlantic coast.
The reversal marked the first time since passage of the Atlantic Coastal Act in 1993 that the Department of Commerce overruled the commission's finding of noncompliance, said commission spokeswoman Tina Berger.
"It was a big surprise that the commission's authority would essentially be disregarded by the Commerce Department," said Maryland Del. Dana Stein, D-Baltimore, one of the fisheries commissioners. "I was very disappointed upon hearing about this."
Former commission Chair Douglas Grout at the time said the "commission is deeply concerned about the near-term impact on our ability to end overfishing on the summer flounder stock, as well as the longer-term ability for the commission to effectively conserve numerous other Atlantic coastal shared resources."
The commission, formed by the 15 Atlantic coastal states in 1942, provides a platform for states to coordinate management plans to conserve fishing stocks.
Each state is represented by three commissioners, including a member of the state legislature, an industry representative and a state official.
Fisheries management is a complicated and difficult field that uses a number of measurements to estimate the number of fish of a particular species in the ocean.
Much of the data is collected by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The data includes fish size, recreational and commercial harvest amounts and assessments of the habitat and movement of species. Also measured is spawning stock biomass, defined as the total weight of male and female fish in a population that contribute to reproduction.
The focus of the dispute is New Jersey's plan for summer flounder, also known as fluke, a large, flat fish that in Maryland is caught both in the Chesapeake Bay and on the Atlantic seaboard.
At issue is how many fish of any species can be taken in a season without tipping the balance toward a steady decline in the overall stock, as occurred years ago with striped bass.
Growing up to four feet long, summer flounder is the seventh most-fished in Maryland and is particularly prized by recreational fishermen.
The flounder reach spawning age at around two years, by which time a mature fish should measure approximately 10 inches long.
New Jersey proposed allowing the harvest of approximately 93,000 more fish this year—roughly double the previous quota limit. The state contended that it was possible to reduce the number of undersized flounder that die after being released back into the ocean by anglers, using an angler education program.
New Jersey's "discard mortality" was rejected by the fisheries commission in its technical report as unquantifiable. But the Commerce Department said Ross accepted NOAA's judgment that New Jersey's plan would work "while also preserving jobs supported by the recreational summer flounder industry" in the state.
It is unclear what NOAA told the Commerce Department. Officials with NOAA declined requests for comment.
However, an earlier report by NOAA contradicts the position the Commerce Department took on the health of the summer flounder supply. In short, that report said that summer flounder was experiencing overfishing and noted that spawning stock biomass of the species decreased significantly between 2013 and 2016.
The NOAA report also noted that, "as the result of the 2016 assessment update, reductions in catch and landings limits were required for 2017 and 2018."
In addition, a memo from the Commerce Department to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said that while it was possible New Jersey's proposal would result in equal conservation, it recognized that "there is some uncertainty about how effective the New Jersey measures will be."
"There's a serious question here of transparency," said Molly Masterson, project attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, a non-profit organization focused on long-term management of natural resources.
"… We don't know, but if commerce and the technical advisors at NOAA were at odds on this that's really important for the public to know and as it currently stands we just don't know," she said.
According to Kiley Dancy, program manager for summer flounder at the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council—one of six federally mandated regional councils—summer flounder was one of the "best assessed" species managed by the commission.
"Almost all of the input into the assessment have shown pretty substantial declines of summer flounder over the years, so although there may be some uncertainties in exactly where the biomass is right now, we've seen trends in declines in these indices for almost all of the indices that are in the assessment," Dancy told Capital News Service.
Her assessment was shared by Maryland officials familiar with the issue.
"The flounder stock has shown a kind of extended period of decline over the last decade from a high point, you know, ten years ago, to a point in time now where the stock is approaching the threshold level for which more significant management action would have to happen," said Michael Luisi, program director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But New Jersey officials say their approach was quantifiable and based on hard data.
"At the end of the day, we're the Department of Environmental Protection," said that agency's assistant commissioner, David Glass. "We're a science-based agency and were able to ultimately be successful by providing sound science and data to the secretary of commerce and NOAA fisheries."
"We've contracted with Montclair State University…here in New Jersey, to conduct a survey," Glass added. "They did a preseason survey for us, and they're doing a post-season survey to show, ultimately was our campaign effective? Did it change angler behavior? Did it help save more fish in the water?"
Officials in Maryland were cautious about the approach taken in New Jersey.
"It's not that New Jersey wasn't acting in the best interest of conservation," Luisi said. "They just did it in a different way and maybe it was a little less quantified based on the hard science, but it doesn't mean it was wrong."
"I think there was just a difference of opinion regarding the management actions that one particular state was presenting as something that they felt was equal to that of the other states," Luisi added.
The fisheries commission tends to err on the side of caution, Masterson said, noting that with a vulnerable population such as summer flounder, "it's really critical that the managers get it right based on a really robust scientific and management strategy evaluation process."
Luisi agreed: "The stock is approaching the threshold level for which more significant management action would have to happen…Managers need to be conservative in how they deal with quotas."
A statement from the Department of Commerce maintains that the decision was in keeping with the available data and with recommendations from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"The long-term sustainability of American fishing stocks and the jobs that rely on them are of the utmost concern to Secretary Ross," said a statement provided by the department.
But the matter also seems to be one of political and commercial interest taking precedence over economic and environmental sustainability according to NRDC's Masterson.
She insisted that "the secretary's decision had absolutely no technical support or analysis from a conservation standpoint as to why that it warranted…overturning the commission's decision and why New Jersey's proposal would be enough basically for conservation."
The future of sustainability efforts now appears to be in a state of uncertainty, according to state fishery managers, with the strict limits imposed by the commission suddenly open to question.
"There's a real concern of states coming out sort of at the last minute and saying, 'Oh, we want to do something totally different and…because of political influence, we have the guys at the commerce that are going to support us,'" said Masterson.
If others states are able to lobby the Commerce Department directly for changes to fishing regulations, as New Jersey has done, Stein said he doesn't want Maryland to lose out.
"I would hope that Maryland wouldn't be the next state (to loosen regulations), but if it seems like that's the trend, Maryland would feel it'd have to defend its own interests," the lawmaker said.
"The decision by Commerce—it makes the whole compliance conservation equivalency a little bit gray… How that translates into future management, it's yet to be determined," Luisi said.
But the decision may be popular with fishermen, who contend the fisheries commission's zeal to protect the fish supply often exceeds its technical knowledge.
"I'm glad to see that somebody stood up to the commission," said Robert Brown, president of Maryland Watermen's Association, which represents commercial fishermen in the state.
"The best science that they say is available—it isn't such a thing," Brown said. "It's the best assessment, the best guess. There's no way you can tell how many fish are out there."
Brown's elation could be short-lived.
Berger, the fisheries commission spokeswoman, said that if summer flounder reaches an overfished status, more stringent federal laws could impose fishing moratoriums on the species.