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Fishermen criticize federal plans for coordinated ocean policy and planning efforts

ROCKPORT, Maine – When it comes to establishing new federal policies and processes for reviewing and approving marine activities, fishermen say they should have a seat at the table.

The new national ocean policy created last summer by President Barack Obama does not give them one, several fishing industry officials told federal regulators Friday at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum. The policy lays out a top-down management structure, they indicated, which likely will result in adverse impacts on fishermen.

“We do not have the opportunity as fishermen to be directly involved in the process, and that concerns me,” said David Wallace of Wallace & Associates, a seafood consulting firm in Salisbury, Md.

The aim of the policy, according to federal officials, is to better coordinate the efforts of multiple federal agencies to plan and regulate activities in the country’s marine waters. The policy creates a Cabinet-level National Ocean Council and a regional approach to coastal and marine spatial planning. Marine spatial planning involves analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean and coastal areas to identify the most suitable activities with the least conflict and environmental impact.

Another important component of the policy is to create a “portal” through which all relevant marine data can be accessed by the involved agencies. As it is, federal officials said, the various collected data are fragmented among multiple agencies and locations.

Ron Beck of the U.S. Coast Guard’s energy and facilities branch in the Northeast district said the new policy will make agencies better prepared by not having them investigate marine planning and development issues only after they receive a development or permit application. Alternative development sites will be better researched, he said, and input from other stakeholders will be gathered much earlier in the review process.

“I have a hope of making this much more proactive,” Beck said.

Eric Schwaab of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Friday that fishermen will get the chance to weigh in on how the policy takes shape and is put into practice, especially at the regional planning body level. Schwaab said nine such bodies will be created after a national ocean policy workshop is held this May in Washington.

The nine areas that will have their own coastal and marine regional planning bodies include the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic states, South Atlantic states, the Gulf of Mexico coast, the Caribbean, the Great Lakes, the West Coast, Alaska and the Pacific Islands.

The process, Schwaab acknowledged, was not set up to give fishery groups a formal role in coordinating the policy. But he said fishing groups are expected to have access to the regional planning bodies, especially in areas that already have established relationships between fishing groups and existing regional marine coordination entities, such as the Northeast Regional Ocean Council in New England.

“The place-based action is going to take place through the regional planning bodies,” Schwaab said. “This is a very positive thing locally.”

But some fishing industry officials remained unconvinced.

Paul Howard, executive director of New England Fishery Management Council, said the potential impact to commercial fishermen is too great for them not to be directly involved. He said existing marine planning programs, such as the process by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement that has been dealing with tidal and offshore wind energy development proposals, have not involved fishermen enough.

“I don’t believe consultation is adequate,” Howard said. ‘We should be at the table. We need to protect our fishing resources and our fishing economy.”

In the example of offshore wind power development, Gary Libby, a Port Clyde fisherman, said there are many ways Maine’s $448 million commercial fishing industry can be affected. He asked if fishermen will have access to where offshore turbines might be located; if electromagnetic fields generated by underwater power lines would drive fish away; and if offshore energy projects would affect the presence of food sources for commercially harvested fish.

“We want to be involved in the process,” Libby said.

Schwaab said that how the regional planning bodies will be organized “is very much a work in progress.” It would not be fair, he said, to hold up existing offshore power proposals and existing review processes until the regional planning bodies are in place.

Schwaab said that federal regulators are not trying to shut fishing groups out, but that there are a lot of other commercial marine interests out there that also would want formal positions with the regional planning bodies if fishermen were given one. The whole purpose of the policy, he said, is to better coordinate, and provide data to, regulatory agencies.

“The [fishing groups] have a tremendous amount to offer from a lot of different perspectives,” he said.