After year in DC, Oliver reflects on fisheries progress
SOLDOTNA — Chris Oliver has had a busy year since he made the leap from Anchorage to Washington, D.C. to take the lead job at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
As soon as he arrived, there was an annual priorities document to review, he said at a recent roundtable discussion event hosted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association in Soldotna. The document is both internally-facing and public to help guide NMFS’ decisions.
There were three goals listed in that document, the first of which was to ensure the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities. He changed it to read “maximize fishing opportunities while ensuring the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities.”
“There are a number of fisheries around the country where we’re not fully utilizing the available harvest whether it’s choke species or bycatch constraints or outdated regulations,” he said. “We’ve been approaching that pretty aggressively in that form. There’s not a huge amount of headroom in our wild stock harvest fisheries, but there’s some.”
The second was to manage protected species, including those under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Under that, he added language to manage those species while supporting responsible fishing and resource development.
NOAA encounters a variety of resource conflicts with endangered species, be they migrating salmon species impacting agriculture or fishermen wanting to harvest king salmon that whales feed on or, more recently in Alaska, fishermen concerned about the number of sea otters impacting the shellfish fisheries in Southeast.
“I think that’s another reflection of the priorities of this administration, approaching things in a more business-minded manner while not disregarding the basic science mandate of our mission,” Oliver said. “Balancing that mandate of our mission to protect and conserve those protected resources with the administration’s focus on supporting energy and infrastructure development is a very delicate balancing act. And it’s really taken a lot of my focus and a lot of my time, but it’s an important balancing act.”
The third goal he revised was to improve agency excellence, adding “regulatory efficiency,” in line with President Donald Trump’s administration’s goal to reduce regulatory burden on business. He said NMFS has “aggressively” moved that direction as fisheries managers move many more regulations than other agencies.
Oliver spent 27 years in Alaska with much of that time as the executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — one of eight such regional councils established under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — and said he brought much of the experience he gained working with the council to the job in Washington. He’s now getting a better look into what other fisheries around the country are dealing with.
His moves toward streamlining regulations and promoting simultaneous uses with fisheries align with another initiative the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is advancing known as the Blue Economy Initiative.
Included in that is maximizing both recreational and commercial fishery opportunities and boosting the opportunities for aquaculture in the country. NOAA Acting Administrator Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet said at a July 24 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation the fact that U.S. aquaculture production is ranked 17th in the world despite its large Exclusive Economic Zone “unacceptable.”
“We are changing that by executing a strategy to use existing authorities to expand aquaculture in federal waters,” he said.
Aquaculture is a particularly hot-button topic in Alaska. Aquaculture is allowed in a variety of types: operations in Southeast and Kachemak Bay produce clams, mussels, oysters and kelp. In 2015, the state permitted 65 farms, though only 22 reported production, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
For finfish, it’s limited to the hatchery operations that dot Southeast, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Kodiak; net-pen farming in the style that other countries and states like Washington allow is illegal in Alaska.
Even hatcheries have recently come under fire from fishermen and environmentalists with concerns about the impact of increasing pink salmon hatchery numbers on the food web of the Gulf of Alaska and their interference with wild stocks by straying into nearby streams.
Oliver said the initiative will include a set of incentives to invest, making it easier for potential aquaculture operations to make it through the permitting hoops and get going.
“As I mentioned before, we don’t have a lot of headroom in our wild capture fisheries,” Oliver said. “but with the growing population of the world, and the amount of coastline that we have, promoting marine aquaculture is a huge initiative of this administration. I know in Alaska that’s not always a welcome prospect … nobody’s going to be forcing anybody to take on anything, but we want to make it (easier to permit).”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].