Recently, in undertaking the tasks associated with one of the hats I wear as the editor of a Chesapeake Bay boating magazine (Full Disclosure: I’m the editor of The Mariner. I may have mentioned that before, but just to be thorough, I’m the editor of The Mariner. Fill Disclosury enough, you think?) I became aware of a new policy instituted by an act of Congress, the National Saltwater Angler Registry. In short, what this does is compel all people who fish in coastal waters and the tributaries they feed into to sign up for a big list, the purpose of which is so that the Federal agency NOAA can have a better target group for its surveys on the state of the fisheries and, in theory, collect better data to make better decisions regarding fisheries management in the future. Don’t sign up, you don’t get a registration number, and you can’t legally fish these waters. It’s free, this year, but a fee is pretty clearly coming, likely next year, and that money goes not directly to NOAA for managing the program, but into the U.S. Treasury, where it can end up being spent anywhere. That’s it in a nutshell.
So, being the editor of a boating magazine, and being that there are lots of people out there in my audience who fish off of their boats, I figured it would be a good idea possibly to mention this in the magazine. Seems kind of important. I read up on the matter, mostly from NOAA’s own website because, with matters of government, I always like to see how it’s presented by the agency in question first. You can always tell a lot from the things government agencies try to justify when presenting their plans, particularly the ones that people are compelled to take part in. Sometimes they even address concerns that hadn’t yet occurred to you. It can be fascinating.
I got the gist of the deal, wrote up a nice little piece and expressed my initial reaction. I’m the editor of The Mariner, mind you, so it’s not my job to go off on a tangential rant about a particular issue. It’s my job to present information. Still, I worked a little of my concerns in there, mostly about the fee and its potential uses, but I also commended the goal of improving the data NOAA collects, and the desire to make better fisheries management decisions. Lord knows (and virtually every fisherman out there, too) that’s an effort long overdue. Simple, straight forward, factual, a little context; gets the professional job I’m tasked with done neatly and efficiently.
Here, however, I’m not the editor of The Mariner. I’m just a guy who occasionally enjoys casting a line in the very waters this new policy affects. And my stated goal here is, in fact, to go on tangential rants about things that cross my path. Read this, the very first post I put up on this site, if you don’t believe me. So, here’s the unvarnished version of my thoughts. And let me make it clear right up front, the following is strictly my opinion, and I am in no way speaking in my position as editor or otherwise representing The Mariner or Chesapeake Publishing in any way. Ah, clarity.
This is a croc. It’s a thinly veiled effort by Congress to create a new database of people to slap with a bill so as to raise some money. Congress doesn’t give a rat’s ass about accurate fisheries data, nor are they terribly concerned with the quality of job NOAA does in collecting it. They want a list, a really comprehensive one, of people they can extort a fee out of, under penalty of law.
Look, I can get behind a program to collect better fisheries data. I would go so far as to suggest that most credible fishermen would support such an effort themselves. After all, nothing annoys fishermen more than bad fisheries management decisions that don’t reflect the reality, and, in some cases, actually contradicts it. I recall a time during the more-stringent rockfish regulations of a few years ago when fishermen were screaming that protected rockfish populations were such that they had begun to eat baby blue crabs because of a shortage of food. I can recall fisheries management stating that, simply, “rockfish don’t eat baby crabs.” Odd, considering that at the same time, I also recall, in person, seeing rockfish hauled aboard fishing boats, and cut open to reveal bellies full of baby crabs. How can you respect the decisions of an agency that, in some cases, controls your very livelihood, when it doesn’t even acknowledge, or is ignorant of, what’s actually going on out there?
I think most people, if you’re going to be subject to the controls of an authority, would want that authority to be as accurately informed as possible. Their actions are vast enough to a have major impact, and when they act from ignorance, it can do a lot of damage. So collecting better data makes perfect sense to me. How you collect that data, however, is another matter.
How about asking fishermen if they’d like to help out? Was that tried? Going down to the docks and putting out sign-up sheets? Something, anything better than randomly calling people in a certain area code, fishermen or not? These guys might volunteer to help, if it means a better chance at avoiding regulatory headaches down the road. But no, what we have here is an act of Congress forcing people to sign up, almost certainly charging them for it, and threatening to take away their ability to fish if they don’t comply. Make them feel like they’re part of the effort, helping to find the right solutions could generate positive assistance. Force them under the gun of Federal law, make them agree to be on your please-call-and-annoy-us list, and charge them for it, well, that’s going to piss people off, and make them less likely to be forthcoming or helpful.
But again, I don’t think Congress cares. It’s a money thing, a way to generate a block of revenue not currently being exploited. I do have one question: these people in the 15 states that have information sharing agreements with the Feds who are exempt from registering if they already hold a state saltwater license, will they still be exempt once a fee is involved? Or will the cost of their state license go up exactly the amount of the Federal fee? Those folks might like to know about that. And, by the way, parse words all you like, playing games with the difference between a license and a registry, but something you have to pay for that doesn’t allow you to fish otherwise is a license, whatever definition you go by.
My question is why this is a necessary issue? NOAA is already tasked with the job of collecting this data, and is already engaged in executing surveys to collect it. The information about fishermen that we’re talking about here already exists is numerous state fishing license databases. There are very few people out there fishing any of these waters unlicensed at this point. And those that are likely aren’t going to sign up for your registry or fill out any of your surveys, anyway. The information to create this “fisherman’s phonebook”, as they call it, already exists. If you’re already doing the job, why does it take an act of Congress to make the database you have better when it could, and probably should, have been done already just in the normal course of business? Why the need to add another layer of licensing and another fee for the people out there just trying to catch a few fish? There is very little new to this effort, with the exception of the fee.
It’s interesting to me that this money can be used anywhere. If NOAA isn’t really doing anything new here other than creating a list like the one they already have, then it’s likely not going to cost that much to execute, other than paying the few folks whose job it will be to do the tedious tasks of generating registration cards and mailing them out. That means any fee will most likely ring up significantly more money at little or no cost for the U.S. Treasury. Raise your hand if you think that this extra cash is likely to help the Fisheries Service, or likely to end up in Representative So-and-So of Podunk, Idaho’s pet project slipped into a huge spending bill because the big guns needed his vote for Cap-and-Trade or other such political nonsense.
What we have here is a revenue raising effort hidden behind a legitimate need, better fisheries management data. Fishermen will be paying this fee, essentially for nothing more than a promise that future surveys will be targeted better, something that already should have been going on. And to be clear, I’m not criticizing NOAA here. I like NOAA. They’re a good bunch. This is Congress’ money-making baby. It’s a tax, targeted at a small sub-group, without the need to call it a tax, and hidden behind the genuine efforts of a government agency. NOAA is just the face they’re using to collect. In other words, this is a croc.
So what have we learned here? One, our government is infinitely inventive in the ways it finds to raise money, and equally creative in the means it uses to mask that fund generation. Also, there’s a clear difference, somewhat conflicting, between the view I presented as editor of The Mariner and the view I presented here, as just a guy who might get stuck paying for this. It’s easier for me here to make assumptions, draw conclusions, and point out inconsistencies because, well, it’s just my opinion. As editor, it’s much more difficult to do, as you have an obligation to inform, and present an unbiased point of view, not that the original piece was totally unbiased. I don’t believe in completely unbiased reporting, anyway. Even the attempt at removing a writer’s feelings and instincts from a piece can create a bias of sorts. It should be more about reporting fairly than reporting evenly.
Read my piece in The Mariner, and you get a feeling of someone explaining the program but with some concerns. Read this, and you see someone who thinks this a pointless, waste of time designed to separate fishermen from their money. Which one is correct? They both are, for the platforms they’re presented in, the roles they fill and the audience I’m speaking to. It’s not my place as an editor to tell people how to think; my job is to inform and raise questions where I deem necessary, not answer them. It’s the readers’ job to answer them for themselves. Here, I’m free to speculate all I like, intuiting answers to my own questions. Remember that when you read the daily paper. How many times do you think reporters have toned down, thinned out and outright removed portions of articles that represent their personal understanding of what they’re writing about and given you a more sparse, contextually lacking piece that informs, if not educates?
Facts are presented, even when the reporter doesn’t believe them for a minute, and the best you can do is present other facts that might call those into question rather than simply questioning them outright. What you read in the paper may seem unbiased, but it’s really some of the most slanted writing out there. All things aren’t even, and both sides of an issue don’t always deserve level treatment or to go unchallenged. Presenting press release quality info doesn’t give the whole story, but then neither does long-winded pontificating based on presumptions.
Are my two sides in opposition? Not really, it’s just that the requirements of the platforms they’re presented in necessitates a change in tone, and that tone can affect the overall impression on the reader. It’s not always what you say that matters most, but what you don’t say, and how you go about not saying it.