Rhode Island Seeks to Join Mid-Atlantic Council, but Politics are in Play

Ocean State has no voice in governance, despite being a major player in those waters


Although a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, Rhode Island is also trying to join the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Council—a move that will finally give it a voice in an organization that affects the state. And if an MAFMC_logo_4amendment during the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act doesn’t enact it, Rhode Island might have to wait 20 more years for its next chance.

Many Rhode Islanders fish for species under the MAFMC’s jurisdiction, such as landing 56% of the total summer scup allocation and 54% of all Atlantic coastal squid landings. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2012 Rhode Island caught 20% of the overall catch from the Mid-Atlantic fishery; its landings exceed those of Delaware, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia combined. Only New Jersey lands more fish from species regulated by the MAFMC. With no say in the rules that govern it, Rhode Island has been seeking MAFMC representation, and there is already a precedent.

In 1996, North Carolina, a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, joined the MAFMC after years of planning. Like Rhode Island, North Carolina landed a significant amount of fish under the MAFMC’s jurisdiction but had no council presence.

Dennis Spitsbergen remembers it all well.

In North Carolina, he served on the SAFMC from 1986 until his retirement in 1998, was its liaison to the MAFMC until the state attained membership, and spent 6 years as the liaison to the New England Fishery Management Council. He recalled a smooth process joining the MAFMC.

“Both the Mid Atlantic and South Atlantic Councils are on the record voting unanimously in support of North Carolina being added to the Mid-Atlantic Council,” Spitsbergen said in an email interview. “At that point it went into the political arena and apparently there was enough support to get North Carolina included as a member of the MAFMC.”

This precedent seems impossible to ignore politically, and possibly legally as well should Rhode Island need to go that route.

And there’s a 2nd precedent: Florida, which has been a member of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast councils since their inception in 1976. With two disparate coasts, Florida logically belonged in both—but the same logic would seem to apply for any states with vested fishing interests under the jurisdictions of other councils.

For this to happen, 3 conditions must be met.Rep_-David-N_-Cicilline-D-R_I

First, Rhode Island’s congressional delegation must push through a bill for the appointment. Sen. Jack Reed (D), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D), Rep. Jim Langevin (D), and Rep. David Cicilline (D) represent Rhode Island.

In April 2013, duplicate bills were introduced in both houses of Congress.

Second, the bill’s language must ensure that any seats go to legitimate representatives of the fishing community via a vote of Rhode Island permit holders. The Rhode Island Fisherman’s Alliance has indicated that it would craft this language, with a goal of filling the seats by votes of Rhode Island groundfishing permit holders.

Third, talk New Jersey into it. Reportedly, industry representatives in New Jersey—the big dog in the MAFMC—are concerned about who Rhode Island might send to the council—such as one who favors recreational interests of commercial interests, or a big-business person who supports catch shares. Rhode Island has indicated it will allow representatives from New Jersey to solicit comments and voice concerns, giving Rhode Island the opportunity to counter any erroneous information.

Congressional Activity

Reed, Rhode Island’s senior senator, has been pushing for this since 2006, culminating in the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Fairness Act of 2011,which cites the North Carolina precedent. In a statement in July 2011, he spoke about his bill, which he co-sponsored with Whitehouse.

“This is a serious flaw in our fisheries management system, which denies the fishermen of my state a voice in the management of many of the stocks that they catch and rely upon for their livelihoods,” said Reed. “This council has enormous significance in the lives and livelihoods of Rhode Island fishermen, but currently no Rhode Islanders get a say in how the council votes. That needs to change.”Rep_-James-R_-Langevin-D-R_I

On April 11th, 2013, Reed introduced Senate bill S.713.IS; it was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. On the same day, Rep. Langevin introduced the bill in the House as H.R. 1504; it was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources. There has been no action in either committee.

Currently, there are no congressional delegates from Rhode Island serving on either committee—but Rep. Jon Runyan (R) of New Jersey is a member of the House committee’s Republican majority. He also serves on the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs, along with his New Jersey compatriot, Rep. Rush Holt (D). Runyan and Holt might well matter, given New Jersey’s concerns about Rhode Island joining the NAMFC. Those in New Jersey’s fishing industry want to ensure that, if this happens, it’s done right.

The bill seeks to add 2 Rhode Island delegates to the current 21-member Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. One seat would have been appointed by the Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce under recommendations by the governor; the other would be filled by a state official with responsibilities in fishery management. But this wasn’t satisfactory to Rhode Island’s fishermen, who preferred that people who understand Rhode Island’s commercial-fishing industry fill the seats.

A Case of Political Failure?

Richard L. Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, says the problem is inherently political—perhaps due to the current Democratic presidential administration, and certainly the ineffectiveness of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. He particularly called out Sen. Jack Reed, who he feels should be able to get things done after his long tenure in Washington.

“Sen. Reed has always paid very close attention to ocean stuff,” Fuka said. “He’s been a big proponent of pushing Rhode Island into alternative energy—a.k.a. windmills—a big proponent of ocean mapping, a big proponent of this global warming … Sen. Reed has always been a federal congressional delegate to bring monies back to Rhode Island—but not necessarily for the fishing industry.”Sen_-Jack-Reed-D-R_I

Reed’s problems, Fuka says, is getting Rhode Island’s fishing industry what it needs.

“We went through a very tough period in Rhode Island where we had a lot of commercial fishermen put out of business or really held at bay by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s misbehavings,” Fuka said. “Sen. Reed took a look at it but, on the record, wasn’t much help.”

Many of Rhode Island’s commercial fishermen are discouraged with the perceived failure of their congressional delegates—especially Sen. Reed. Fuka blames Reed’s ineffectiveness on a lack of gumption fueled by overstaying his welcome in Congress.

“My gut feeling is Jack Reed just doesn’t have enough chutzpah, even on his finance committee, to be able to trade back and forth,” Fuka said. “Something’s missing for Jack Reed there,

politically. Twelve years in D.C. is a bit of time. He’s not getting it done for the commercial fishing industry.”

It’s actually 23 years. Reed served in the House from 1991-1997, and in the Senate since. That’s a lot of time to not be getting anything done, Fuka says, which is in stark contrast to the professional relationship between Rhode Island and New Jersey. The 2 states, he says, have a strong business relationship, and it mystifies him that the same success hasn’t happened politically.

“We partner very well with New Jersey when it comes to business,” Fuka said. “Apparently, Jack Reed doesn’t partner well with the political folks in New Jersey.” Fuka is quick to point out that although he’s calling Reed on the carpet, it’s for Reed’s lack of success, not inaction. “I’m not going to say Jack Reed hasn’t tried; he has made more than one attempt—3 attempts for the Fairness Act,” Fuka said. “He just for some reason doesn’t have the political guns to rally his Democratic folks around his efforts.”

Fuka believes it’s the lackluster political workings in Rhode Island that are making the folks in New Jersey leery—something that might figure into other states who are members of the MAFMC. He suggested that the Obama administration is part of the problem, as well as political issues that weren’t in existence back when North Carolina joined the MAFMC, such as tighter regulations.

“It’s too bad because we’re stuck in the middle of bad Washington politics. I haven’t seen any of our federal congressional delegates hanging around fishery issues lately because, frankly, they don’t get a warm reception when they show up. “Maybe Jack Reed needs to spend time with us instead of too much time in D.C.,” he added.

Congressional Courage Needed?

Fuka is quick to point out that Reed isn’t the only political problem. He called out Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who supports ocean mapping, windmills, and global-warming mitigation.Sen_-Sheldon-Whitehouse-D-R_I

“Most people at face value say ‘Great idea,’” he said. “But how are we going to pay for it, and is it good for the fishermen?” Fuka said that Rep. Cicilline voted in “every direction” in support of the Environmental Defense Fund, which Fuka claims is a negative impact on Rhode Island.

“It’s community lives, and that’s what the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance is—the state’s largest fishermen’s advocacy organization,” Fuka said. “About 85% of the guys rely on us to speak for them. It’s too bad the federal congressional delegates didn’t listen to us more.”

Sen. Reed was unavailable for comment for this story, but his press secretary, Chip Unruh, responded to Fuka’s criticisms in a statement to ACFN, arguing that Reed “works hard every day to promote, protect, and support the interests of Rhode Island’s fishermen.”

Unruh cited Reed’s lead on a bipartisan effort to secure disaster assistance for groundfishermen after the House stripped funding from the Disaster Supplemental Appropriations bill and his lead

in securing nearly $3 million from the Economic Development Administration for infrastructure improvements to the Port of Galilee. There was also his securing of more than $6 million for fishermen directed research and gear-exchange programs. And Unruh says that Reed has been relentless in his efforts to get Rhode Island onto the MAFMC.

“Passing legislation through Congress isn’t easy, but Sen. Reed is committed to getting this done,” Unruh said. “The best way to achieve this is through hard work, building a case, and bringing people together. No one ever said this would be easy or immediate. Nor should anyone just throw up their hands and claim this is too hard.”

Unruh says the issue might be addressed in the upcoming draft of the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. If that proves troublesome, Reed will keep seeking other ways to make it happen.

“Once that happens, we still have a long way to go,” Unruh said. “But again, Senator Reed does not give up as easily as some.”

Or is it Just a Difficult Road?

Christopher Brown Sr., president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association, has a view of Reed’s efforts very different from Fuka’s, saying that the senator has “bent over backwards.”

“It’s a Herculean task that we’re asking of him, given the opposition that we’re facing,” Brown said. “The state of New Jersey has stood on its head for the last 3 or 4 years to keep us from getting representation in this process. It’s unfortunate, because Rhode Island has a lot to offer with regard to our knowledge of the fisheries, our dedication to sustainable fishing, and our ability to work successfully with everybody.”

But the lack of results so far, Brown says, is in no way reflective of Reed’s efforts. “Jack Reed has gotten us millions of dollars for our research-trust foundation, which is the crown jewel in this industry in the state of Rhode Island,” Brown said. “It’s that kind of help that helps fishermen help themselves.”

Brown says he talks to Rhode Island’s politicians regularly, and they’re cognizant of the need for adequate representation. “It doesn’t help to bash their efforts,” he said. “I just think it’s going to be a longer battle and it’s more important that we get it right.” Brown described RICFA as a solutions-oriented group dedicated to solving problems within the context of existing law—working with congressional delegates and their staffs, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations to find collaborative ways to get things done.

“We don’t ever approach a problem simply by complaining,” he said. “We always have a solution in our back pocket. Our strategy of working together to try to get things done is not probably something that resonates with someone who decides, long before the facts, to be disgruntled.”

Regardless of the particulars, Fuka says any kind of political failure is something that Rhode Island’s fishermen are smart enough to see.

“One thing about the fishing industry: People always underestimate how bright commercial fishermen are,” Fuka said. “They’re all MacGyvers and they can all reinvent themselves very quickly. They can reinvent the wheel for fishery management, they’re great marine biologists, and, when they have to be, they’re politicians. They know what’s going on.” •

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