The United States government is finally back to work after a 16-day shutdown. The immediate crisis may be over, but the negative effects if the shutdown will continue to impact fisheries management and ocean conservation for weeks, or even years to come.
While some fishermen were stuck on shore waiting for government permits, like the Alaskan King Crab fishermen of the popular Deadliest Catch TV series, the majority of the fishing industry kept fishing, removing 30 million pounds of seafood from the ocean on average each day.
The problem is that during the government shutdown, the scientists, observers and others who survey fish abundance and ocean conditions, help recover threatened marine mammals and sea turtles, and work to ensure that the ocean is healthy enough to support our fishing industry were metaphorically (and in some cases literally) left high-and-dry on shore.
This is because most of the U.S. Fisheries Service was furloughed during the shutdown -- according to news reports only 500 of the roughly 3,000 staff at NOAA fisheries were at work during the shutdown. Those out of work included the personnel at the Fisheries Science Centers, halting work done to support fisheries from coast to coast, including updating critical fish stock assessments.
These assessments inform how much fish should be caught in the coming year. The shutdown created gaps in new data, which could result in a roll-over of last year's fishing quotas, even though this could be completely inaccurate for next year. That is a big risk, especially for the fish populations that are in decline.
The shutdown also affected important work at other agencies charged with protecting and managing ocean resources. For example, regulators at the Department of the Interior were likely unable to gather or synthesize important information and which could jeopardize implementation of needed protections, like promised new safety and operating rules for oil companies in the Arctic Ocean.
Meanwhile, NOAA's research boats were literally tied to the dock when they should have been on the water counting fish and collecting data. Already, some ocean studies were ended prematurely when the shutdown occurred. NOAA has only begun thinking about the impacts of ocean acidification and climate change on our ocean resources. (And, by the way, the last time the ocean started to become this acidic was 300 million years ago and was associated with mass-extinction of most species on the planet).
Here in the U.S. we have some of the world's healthiest fisheries, largely because our fishery management system successfully incorporates science into its decisions. We need Congress to learn that shutting down the government and keeping fisheries scientists and other employees out of work is immeasurably damaging to scientific research and conservation. These scientists ensure that U.S. fisheries move towards sustainability and remain a viable source of food and jobs for our country for generations to come.