Memos reveal plan to draw criticism from fishermen, NGOs by extending the recreational season

Internal memos between Earl Comstock, director of Policy and Strategic Planning for Commerce, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross reportedly show that both men intentionally violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act, knowing that extending the recreational red snapper fishery from three to 42 days this summer would lead to significant overfishing.

“It would result in overfishing of the stock by 6 million pounds (40 percent), which will draw criticism from environmental groups and commercial fishermen,” wrote Comstock, in a June 1 memo to Ross. “However NMFS agrees that this stock could handle this level on a temporary basis.”

The memos were released as part of an Ocean Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund lawsuit filed against the Department of Commerce.

“Congress would need to act to prevent reduced catch limits for all fishing sectors next year. This problem will not be able to be addressed through the fishery management system without a change of law,” Comstock said, adding that inevitable overfishing would “put the ball squarely in the court of Congress.”

It is implied in the memos that the overfishing crisis would lead to a Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization that leaned toward favoring recreational interests.

“We now have alarming proof that the Department of Commerce knew their decision was illegal, would result in overfishing, and would hurt fishermen by causing significant reductions in fishing next year,” said Meredith Moore, director of the Fish Conservation Program at Ocean Conservancy. “We need solutions that keep our oceans healthy for the long term, not short-term workarounds that bypass the law and benefit some at the cost of others.”

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Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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