In recent years, high fuel prices and stringent federal regulations have combined to take an especially heavy toll on charter boat owners and operators across the United States.
President Barack Obama's 2010 National Ocean Policy executive order and his National Ocean Council's recent release of a final implementation plan now set the stage for a one-two punch that could choke off access to fishery resources and add to already-high fuel costs by restricting opportunities to develop energy here at home.
Although billed as “voluntary” in the final implementation plan, the executive order requires federal officials to implement Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning, otherwise known as ocean zoning, nationwide (and even potentially inland), and the final plan itself requires new “regional planning bodies” to develop “marine plans” by 2017.
The process will be overseen and implemented by the National Ocean Council and new regional zoning boards comprised solely of government representatives. As bureaucrats gather to draw lines on maps and determine the fate of significant contributors to the economy and social fabric of the nation, the fishing and boating communities simply will not have a direct seat at the table.
In addition, the administration has been unable to adequately explain how this new program that has not been authorized by Congress will in practice respect the decisions and authority of existing fishery management councils that were established by statute.
Furthermore, as assurances are sought that federal regulations are based on sound science — which requires sufficient levels of funding and human resources — the administration has directed federal entities to prioritize this new policy in their budgets and asked how their resources can be repurposed in support of this unauthorized initiative.
Why do we need another bureaucratic entity costing taxpayers untold amounts of money on top of existing authorized programs and structures that were designed to address resource management?
According to the NOAA publication “Fisheries Economics of the United States for 2009,” in 2009 alone recreational saltwater fishing produced sales impacts from angling and durable expenditures totaling $50 billion, value-added impacts of $23 billion, and more than 327,000 jobs.
That same year, commercial fishing produced more than 1 million jobs, $116 billion in sales and $32 billion in income impacts, while seafood retailers contributed $10 billion and 484,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.
In my hometown of Panama City, Fla., 15 percent of tourism dollars comes from saltwater recreational fishing.
Recreational and commercial fishermen are already over-regulated and subjected to restricted fishing seasons, overly restrictive bag limits and quotas, closed areas to boating and fishing, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act, engine emission regulations, marine protected areas, gear restrictions, U.S. Coast Guard regulations, manning requirements, life-saving requirements, licensing, medical review processes, navigation restrictions and FCC radio licensing and requirements, among others.
Our industry cannot absorb additional regulatory burdens. Many fishermen have left fishing because they have simply been regulated out of business, private recreational fishermen have been forced to find other hobbies and recreational-for-hire boat owners have turned off their engines because consumers are not willing to pay the higher costs associated with increased regulations.
The cumulative effects trickle down to hurt support businesses like tackle shops, boat builders and seafood retailers.
Adding new restrictions through a national zoning plan and new and unnecessary regulations will create a level of regulatory burden and costs that the fishing community will simply not be able to withstand. Fishing and boating are at an all-time low.
Rather than embark on this unwise policy course, the administration should instead focus its efforts on moving forward with actions that sustain the jobs, wages and revenue that these important economic sectors produce.
Capt. Robert F. Zales II is governmental affairs director for the National Association of Charterboat Operators. He served as president of NACO from 1999-2012.