Industrial Special Interests Don't Speak for the Fishing Community
I learned to fish almost as soon as I could walk. It was my first connection to the ocean and it’s how I learned to respect and appreciate our natural environment and all that it provides. Looking back now, it’s what inspired me to study the ocean and devote my career to its conservation.
Despite growing up fishing, being Brown and female — particularly on Florida’s Gulf Coast — meant the collective term “fishermen” rarely applied to me. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to defend my purchase choices at a tackle store or turn down patronizing offers to help:
“No, I’m not buying a gift for my boyfriend/dad/brother and yes, I can handle my own boat and bait my own hook, thank you.”
Once, when I went to get fingerprinted for a job piloting boats, they didn’t even have a demographic category that fit me. The employee told me that she would just put “unknown.” How many others have fallen through the cracks of representation in fishing — unknown, unheard and unrepresented?
So, I am here to speak out for all the people who are “fishermen” yet don’t look like those represented by all the fishing organizations who have vehemently opposed the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act — a comprehensive piece of legislation that seeks to leverage the power of the ocean in the fight against climate change — due to its recommendation that we protect 30 percent of US waters by 2030.
Those interest groups do not represent the voice of the collective fishing community. They represent short-sighted and parochial interests of the people who look like them. They are using the powerful lobbying voice of “the fisherman” to push an agenda that’s neither good for the ocean nor for the long-term success of any species we fish. I’m a fisherwoman and a marine scientist, and I’m here to tell you that protecting at least 30 percent of our ocean is critical if we want to keep fishing into the future.
In the United States and around the world, marine protected areas are proven tools to take pressure off of the ocean, give it a chance to heal and increase the number of fish available outside of the protected space. Even though certain areas are closed to fishing, we actually boost a fishery through what’s called the “spillover effect.”
Protected places, informed by science and thoughtfully chosen, help preserve key ecosystems and give the intricate web of species that call them home a fighting chance at recovery and resilience in the face of climate change.
Federal fisheries in the U.S. are managed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), and while this law makes our fisheries some of the most well-managed in the world, it does little to protect the ecosystem and habitats all species rely on, including the commercially-relevant ones. Look no further than my home state of Florida where more than 98 percent of the coral reefs have died, to see we need policies that help us manage more than fisheries. In today’s rapidly changing ocean, conservation and restoration are essential to ensure those fisheries can exist into the future and continue to support fishers and coastal communities.
Beyond the direct benefits to habitats and species, marine protected areas also help create jobs, boost the economy, and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Commendably, the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act promotes coastal community resiliency and adaptation and places an emphasis on increasing coastal access for communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities.
The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act does not undermine our existing fisheries management law, it enhances it. It does not arbitrarily close 30 percent of our waters, but sets up an inclusive process so that all stakeholders have a voice in what is protected.
We are rapidly reaching a tipping point from which we cannot recover. We, as fishers, as ocean-lovers, and as Americans, need ocean leadership that moves beyond the fish wars of the last 50 years and towards ocean justice. The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act creates a new path forward, one that recognizes the disenfranchised, creates opportunities for justice, and protects our planet and its biodiversity for future generations. Unheard voices in the collective fishing community need to be amplified and elevated or we will drown.
Anupa Asokan is a fisherwoman and marine scientist who grew up on Florida’s Gulf Coast and now resides in California.