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Policy: Environment & Energy

Ron Arnold: Bureaucratic miracle of cooperation saves sturgeon fishery

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Opinion,Ron Arnold,Columnists,Environment,Energy and Environment,Animals,Fishing

Good news is no news, so the cynics say, especially with news cycles hammering President Obama's scandal headaches from migraines into political skull fractures.

But this week something came out of the federal bureaucracy so filled with human decency that it deserves some kind of a headline — maybe not a page-spanning WAR-type headline, but at least a modest caption.

On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a draft document called a "biological opinion" — more powerful than the nice name implies — that commercial fishing posed "no jeopardy" to the endangered sturgeon in seven key Atlantic Coast areas.

Why is that worth headlines? Because it's extraordinary: Ultrapoliticized NOAA officials rarely fail to bludgeon commercial fishermen out of business with "jeopardy" findings based on virtually no information.

In that way, they are like discredited and departed Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Al Armendariz, whose philosophy was to groundlessly "crucify" resource companies "as an example to others."

It's really extraordinary: Big Green's Natural Resources Defense Council and others filed petitions in 2009 to list the sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act, claiming the iconic fish's population was critically low.

So, when the biological study was proposed to conduct a scientific count (in a "Section 7 Consultation" required under the act), NRDC lobbyists bristled at the idea of meddling researchers possibly finding abundant sturgeon to upset their fundraising cart.

What happened next is really extraordinary: NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service meddled anyway (although it took a little prodding from key congressmen to ensure that NOAA and NMFS didn't cave in to Big Green lobbyists).

So they incorporated the new research data into NOAA's policymaking process on the sturgeon issue. It showed vastly more sturgeon alive and well than the doomsayers claimed, and that produced the "no jeopardy" finding.

It's miraculous: This "no jeopardy" finding shifts Atlantic fisheries out of Endangered Species Act crisis mode and confirms that the four-year cooperative research program designed as a team effort in that Section 7 Consultation was worth the time and money.

Much more, it gave us hope that collaboration, real scientific understanding, and mutual respect can prevail among commercial fishermen, biological researchers and involved resource managers. Better miracles are considerably above the government's pay grade.

Kevin Wark, captain of the Dana Christine, a 42-foot gillnetter out of Barnegat Light in New Jersey, has been working on the project since it began.

He and crewman Mike Lohr took 4,000 yards of mesh nets and temporarily relocated to Dewey Beach, Del., never running more than 10 miles from the Indian River Inlet.

Three years into the project, over a total of 68 days of sampling, Wark and Lohr caught and released 324 Atlantic sturgeon, some more than 7 feet long, and recaptured not a single fish from the previous year. That was nearly as many as the whole previously estimated population.

The researchers on board implanted the captured sturgeon with long-life tracking radios to identify individuals and locate migratory and spawning areas, and collected DNA samples to identify subspecies correctly.

Wark said, "Professor Dewayne Fox and grad student Matt Breece from Delaware State University, Jim Armstrong from the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and the other researchers handled themselves on board like fishermen. They pitched in and were more than willing to get their hands dirty helping out."

The scientists acknowledge that the capture and release of so many large sturgeon would not have been possible without the knowledge and skill of Wark and Lohr designing and building the gear, finding and catching the sturgeon, then getting the fish back in the water in good shape.

I spoke with Greg DiDomenico, executive director of Garden State Seafood Association, who has worked this issue since the 2009 petitions. He spreads the credit around to the fishermen who realized the importance of sturgeon conservation, and the fisheries agencies and managers of most of the East Coast states who backed the study.

This little headline is for all these people seeking scientific truth rather than giving in to Big Green ideology: Thank you for the human decency.

Washington Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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