The regional councils keep working on provisional funds while the shutdown shutters federal offices and the Federal Register
When the staff of the New England Fishery Management Council returned to their offices following the winter holiday break to a partial shutdown of the federal government, there was cause for concern, but no alarms were set off.
“We were OK at first,” said Janice Plante, the council’s public affairs officer. “We were plugging along post-holidays, doing what we could without being in touch with our federal partners. There’s always plenty to do to start a new year.”
Then the calendar alerts began popping up, signifying that the days ahead were about to become a lot more difficult for the staff.
“The deeper we’ve gone into [the shutdown],” said Plante, “the more challenging it has become for all of us.”
President Donald Trump refuses to sign any fiscal 2019 appropriations bills that do not include $5.6 billion for the construction of his campaign-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Democratic leaders refuse to sign off on any new bill that includes funds for the wall.
The stalemate has led to an estimated 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay. NOAA employees, working under the Department of Commerce, involved in the regulation of commercial fisheries and stationed in the regional fishery science centers fall under the furloughed category.
Without their NOAA counterparts to provide valuable and necessary scientific input on stock assessments, potential allocation changes and other council business, the eight regional fishery management councils are tasked with doing the work they can finish independently and carefully rescheduling meetings in order to complete business with as little impact as possible on the nation’s federal fisheries.
While no new money has been budgeted to the councils, they are luckily able to operate with rollover funds and a portion of their 2019 budget that was allocated early. Those funds will keep them operational well into the year.
The shutdown had passed the 30-day mark at press time, making it the longest in U.S. history.
“The troubling thing is that… you can’t see the end of this,” said Christopher Moore, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “The unease is certainly growing.”
“We’ve been able to work on routine assignments, but there is a lot that requires input from our partners at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. It’s been problematic,” said Plante as the shutdown entered its fourth week. “We’re starting to feel the challenge of not being in contact with them.”
Most councils are facing a similar issue in regard to scheduling — in order to take final action on any rule changes, each council must announce meetings in the Federal Register. Since that office is closed, final actions are off the table.
Luckily, the New England council had nothing set for final ruling at the scheduled Jan. 29 meeting. But the delay was expected to affect the herring and scallop fisheries.
Plante said the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Offices proposed rule to implement an in-season adjustment to set 2019 Atlantic herring catch limits to fall more in line with the latest stock assessment will be delayed. With one meeting on a species delayed, that in turn delays any final ruling in an already slow management process. Council staff are worried about trickle-down effects in 2020 and 2021.
The council is also becoming increasingly concerned with the passing of a final rule for the scallop fishery. While the season will begin on April 1 regardless, under a set of default rules, the lack of a final rule for the year leaves scallopers having to plan their business and marketing efforts relatively in the dark.
The late January council meeting was set to go on as scheduled.
“The longer this goes on, the greater the implications on all of our actions,” said Plante. “We’re all hoping this will come to an end soon.”
The Mid-Atlantic council was in a more difficult situation as the shutdown entered its fourth week. The staff was on the tipping point: Will the government open in time for its Feb. 11 meeting, will it need to be postponed, or will all actions have to wait for the next meeting in April?
On Jan. 22 the council announced that it was canceling the meeting. "The council is considering rescheduling some of the planned agenda items for a shorter meeting tentatively scheduled for March 6 and 7 in Virginia Beach," read an email from Mary Sabo, the council's communications and outreach coordinator. "However, feasibility of this option is highly dependent on when the government reopens."
Many committee meetings scheduled for late January were pushed back and rescheduled as webinars.
A joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass advisory panel is waiting to be rescheduled. The council expected to revisit 2019 summer flounder specifications for recreational fishermen. The fishery has no rollover quota implemented, so the council is running out of time if those fishermen are to get on the water in a few months.
For commercial mackerel fishermen, these meeting delays might mean missing out on a quota bump at the end of their season. The council approved a rebuilding framework last year that would increase the commercial catch from 9,177 metric tons to 17,371 metric tons, if approved. Right now, that increase will be delayed as long as the government is shut down, meaning fishermen could miss out on valuable time to harvest that extra quota.
Moore, as well as other council leaders, is becoming increasingly worried about the backlog that Federal Register employees face when they are able to return to work.
“We’re growing very worried about how they’ll deal with all of this,” he says. “Everyone continues to send notice to the Federal Register even though they aren’t open, and those are piling up.”
While the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council isn’t set to meet until early March, multiple meetings will likely be delayed, which could cause trouble down the line.
A Southeast Data, Assessment and Review benchmark assessment of Atlantic red porgy will be delayed, commensurate with the length of the shutdown, which could affect the timing the season opener.
Also set to be reviewed is an abbreviated framework for the snapper/grouper fishery that would increase the commercial catch of vermillion snapper by 210,800 pounds. That increase will also be delayed.
One of the biggest issues in this region is the lack of quota tracking by NMFS. Fishermen and dealers are turning in reports, and data is being published by the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program. But without NMFS analysis and feedback, the industry is struggling to compile accurate data.
According to council Executive Director Gregg Waugh, fishermen have called about both golden tilefish and Spanish mackerel repeatedly, asking about catch updates.
“We’re advising fishermen to be prudent,” he said. “We’re providing the information that we can and are asking fishermen to voluntarily stop fishing to avoid repercussions to the stock next season. There’s always the temptation to go after a short-term windfall. But there’s no way of knowing the long-term consequences.”
Waugh said there are also “significant consequences to the NMFS Permit Office, as more federal permits will expire at the end of the month.” Fishermen will be unable to renew their permits when they expire and will face the decision to stop or keep fishing without a license and hoping they run into an understanding official if caught.
“This is putting a lot of stress on fishermen in an already stressful industry,” said Waugh.
Gulf of Mexico
The expiration of fishing permits is becoming an issue for Gulf of Mexico fishermen as well, according to council officials.
“We’re trying to facilitate a workaround for those fishermen,” said Emily Muehlstein, the Gulf council’s public information officer. “If your permit expires during the shutdown and you are able to prove due diligence in renewing it, the federal side should not pursue you.”
A stock assessment of the red grouper fishery took place in September, and the shutdown is delaying meetings to explore that data.
Council staff has also taken the reins on a series of electronic reporting workshops that were set to be split with federal partners.
Like other councils with upcoming meetings, the Gulf council planned on going forward with its Jan. 28 meeting without its federal partners.
“This is the longest [shutdown] I’ve experienced,” says council Executive Director Carrie Simmons. “We don’t have a very good plan moving forward from here, planning meetings without the proper scientific materials. We’re moving forward the best we can, but our hands are tied.”
“The longer this takes, the more issues arise and the more backed up everyone is,” says Muehlstein. “It’s tough to see the long-term consequences.”
According to Sylvia Spalding, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s communications officer, the delay in a biological opinion will likely hold up council action and implementation for turtle measures in the shallow-set longline fishery.
There is also a bit of uncertainty whether the scientists at NMFS’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center will be able to finish a stock assessment document on the bottomfish in the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in time for the Western Pacific Stock Assessment Review in February. A delay in the review would delay council action on a new annual catch limit for these fisheries, says Spalding.
The science center has also been unable to provide daily updates on TurtleWatch, a map product that provides information to swordfish-targeting longline fishermen on areas where interactions with loggerhead turtles are likely to be higher.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council’s next meeting isn’t scheduled until March, so no major business or final action rulings had been affected at press time.
The council went forward with a groundfish management team meeting, an ecosystem workgroup meeting and a salmon technical team meeting in January without its federal partners. A meeting on highly migratory species management was canceled, as well as the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee meeting.
The council planned to go forward with its March meeting, keeping an eye on agenda items that might be affected if the federal shutdown continues.
The biggest issue for West Coast fishermen during this time is the Dungeness and rock crab fishery disaster spend plans, submitted in September, which were still pending when the shutdown started.
“The shutdown is holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster payments to fishing families, which cannot be approved until and unless staff at the Department of Commerce return from furlough,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Core functions of the federal administration that impact all of us in this industry have gone dark. This situation is absurd.”
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council was set to go on with its Feb. 4 meeting, with or without federal partners.
“We’ve had to modify our agenda a bit,” said David Witherell, the council’s executive director. “We’ll work without our NMFS and U.S. Coast Guard partners, so we’ll be missing a lot of analysis and advice, but we’ve got to move forward and make preliminary suggestions. We might end up doing a lot of backtracking.”
The council was set to consider catch specifications for Norton Sound red king crab. The fishery begins in May, so this was the most timely action on the table.
The council was also set to review alterations to several regulations, including altering the fees charged to harvesters for the cost of the fishing observer program and consider items such as electronic logbooks for crab harvesters, economic data reports and review a report about the status of marine mammals. All of these items would’ve included input from NMFS staffers and will likely have to be revisited.
Witherell said this shutdown has the council considering formulating better action plans for a repeat of this situation.
“The more experience we have [dealing with government shutdowns], the more experience we have in knowing what we can and cannot accomplish during one,” he says.
While the councils’ staffs acknowledge their frustration and uncertainty, all expressed concern for their federal partners, who are unable to work.
“We really feel for our federal partners,” said Waugh. “This is putting a considerable strain on them, and it will take some time for the normal work flow to be re-established once government reopens.”
“While we’re in a tough spot, we recognize that we’re lucky to be able to come to work and keep our heads down,” said Muehlstein.
A lack of scientific input into a slow-moving rule-making process that relies on it heavily will inevitably create significant delays affecting fishermen and regulators.
“We, and all of the management councils, are committed to keep pushing and do as much meaningful work as we can while we’re limited,” said Witherell. It’s one of those situations where you may not get the first down, but you’re able to move the ball 5 yards. And that’s good, sometimes that’s all you can do.”