Highlighting the current administration’s continued focus on deregulation and increased state management of marine resources, a top official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) visited Coastal Alabama over the weekend.
Ret. Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, who is the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere for the Department of Commerce and the former acting director of NOAA, came at the invitation of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL).
Gallaudet made stops at the sea lab as well as the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, Weeks Bay Plantation and a local oyster farm — all of which fit nicely into NOAA’s “Blue Economy” plan, which hopes to better leverage aquatic and coastal resources across the United States.
He capped his trip off with a roundtable discussion with officials from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and local leaders about how NOAA can help support and strengthen the seafood and commercial fishing industry locally and nationally.
“We’re actually in kind of a challenging time because the United States is currently importing about 90 percent of the seafood we consume,” Gallaudet said. “And of that, about half is grown in foreign fish farms, some of which are using some pretty sketchy practices that can make the seafood they produce not necessarily the healthiest or the most ethical.”
As part of NOAA’s “Blue Economy” plan, the agency is aiming to triple domestic marine aquaculture production and maximize sustainable commercial fishing by streamlining regulations of the U.S. fisheries it oversees through the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Alabama is a prime example of both of those ideas in action with its continued development of oyster aquaculture and, more recently, its own management of the season for recreational red snapper fishing. However, Gallaudet said NOAA has and will continue to take deregulatory actions around the U.S. to give fishermen more access to their product “in a sustainable way.”
Since 2017, NOAA has removed around 20 regulations of fisheries around the country and plans to remove more. However, Gallaudet noted that those decisions were informed by the “best” science like the work performed by DISL and some of the regulations were old or outdated. He said those “deregulatory actions” led to $685 million of economic activity.
Some of NOAA’s rollbacks under the U.S. Department of Commerce have also allowed state agencies more control over their coastal waters and fisheries — like the Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) program that’s allowed Gulf states to set their own seasons for red snapper since 2018.
In the past, state regulators struggled to wrestle local control of the snapper season from federal agencies like NOAA, but after two successful years under the EFP pilot program, Alabama will be setting its own snapper season on a regular basis beginning in 2020.
Speaking to Gallaudet, Alabama Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon praised the EFP program and said state officials have a better understanding of local fishermen and conditions.
“We still get the total allowable catch from the federal government, but managing the red snapper season, which is a superstar fish here in Alabama, has been a success that almost seemed like an impossible task a few years ago,” Bannon added. “Now we’re going to move to full state management next year, and I think the citizens are very excited and appreciative.”
A good example of the kind of local control the EFP program has allowed happened last week when ADCNR announced an extension to the 27-day snapper season for private anglers it set earlier this year. The 2019 season will now run through midnight on Monday, Aug. 5.
The decision to extend the season for five additional days was made after a review of landing estimates collected through ADCNR’s Snapper Check program showed that private and state-licensed charter boats had only caught half of the quota allotted for 2019.
As of July 14, Alabama had only caught 315,377 pounds of its 1.7 million-pound quota. At least part of that low yield was blamed on Hurricane Barry, which ADCNR said “limited anglers’ fishing opportunities” when it dropped two days of rain across the Gulf Coast earlier this month.
Gallaudet said NOAA is also looking to streamline regulatory and permitting processes for aquaculture, adding that, if he could clone the oyster farms operating in Mobile Bay and set them up across the country he would. Instead, NOAA hopes to make it easier for others to start.
“We currently have no aquaculture going on in our federal waters. Most of it is happening in state waters,” he said. “We want a lot more of that going on, but the reason it’s not happening in federal waters and the reason we have a number of very successful, profitable American companies that are doing their aquaculture overseas is because our regulations are a mess.”
Specifically, he said federal permitting for aquaculture is “a hassle” for potential farmers because, in some cases, NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency are required to sign off on new permits.
Recently though, Gallaudet said the heads of those various agencies have been working to streamline that process by making sure their rules are aligned by establishing NOAA as a “one-stop-shop” for federal aquaculture permits.
Those are just some of the ways NOAA is hoping to better position seafood producers and fishermen in a global “ocean economy” that’s projected to double in value over the next decade while also addressing the U.S.’s current $16 billion deficit in seafood exports and imports.
“We have the second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world and we also have the best science in the world,” Gallaudet said. “If we grow our aquaculture production and increase the exports of U.S.-caught fish, we can really turn that around.”
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