In February, when the Obama administration released its proposed 2013 budget, it featured more than $5 million in budget cuts for NOAA Fisheries, which oversees marine resources, including commercial fishing. As part of those cuts, the agency’s Northwest Region and Southwest Region are merging into the new West Coast Region to cut $3 million in management costs.
“Many of the fisheries issues addressed by these two regions (for example, Pacific salmon) overlap and, therefore, this merger will improve coordination in areas where there is currently joint decision-making,” the federal budget proposal stated.
Agency officials say the merger would take place during an 18-month time frame, finishing up sometime in 2014. It creates one administrative region for the West Coast to oversee Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, cutting it from the previous two regions – one headquartered in Long Beach, California, overseeing the 1,000 miles of California coastline and inland river basins, the other based in Seattle, covering coastal and inland waterways of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
In May, agency officials announced several senior leadership changes to support West Coast operations under the realignment.
Will Stelle, who was the Northwest Region administrator, is the new West Coast Region administrator.
“The integration of NOAA Fisheries offices across the West Coast will allow us to be more efficient and more consistent in our coast-wide programs, especially for salmon and groundfish,” said Stelle. “We’ll be better positioned to adopt the most successful approaches from each region, capitalize on the deep expertise of our staff throughout the coast, and generate new initiatives to streamline services and improve conservation of our resources and their habitats.”
In announcing the changes, Sam Rauch, acting assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said Stelle’s extensive experience on Endangered Species Act salmon issues “provides a strong foundation for NOAA’s mission to rebuild these valuable natural resources and promote the coastal economies that depend on them.” He said Stelle has also served as “primary liaison” with multiple federal, state, tribal and local partners on California Bay Delta issues. “His success at bringing West Coast habitat and water rights issues to the foreground, along with an emphasis on protecting and restoring ecosystems, will help secure workable solutions for the many challenging issues facing fisheries on the West Coast,” Rauch noted.
Barry Thom is deputy regional administrator for the newly formed region. Rod McInnis, Southwest Region administrator, has accepted a new position at NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, as the acting director of NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs.
He joined the Southwest Region in 1982 and became regional administrator in 2004. Rauch said McInnis would “step into a role that is tailor-made for his skills and experience, including his decades of direct bilateral and international negotiations.” As the lead for International Affairs, he would also “continue to serve in his role as the Federal Commissioner to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) which is responsible for the conservation and management of tuna and other marine resources in the eastern Pacific Ocean.”
NOAA Fisheries officials say more decisions about the structure of the new West Coast region lie ahead as the agency makes incremental shifts toward forging one region. Rauch said they would have the entire region “finalized and fully operational” by the end of 2014.
Some things won’t change, agency leaders noted, especially the core services and focus.
Agency leaders say the scope of NOAA Fisheries’ work on the West Coast is not changing with this new structure. Instead, the integration “opens the opportunity to pursue closer program coordination throughout the West Coast, promoting appropriate levels of programmatic consistency, efficiency, and the allocation of available resources to the high priority challenges.” It also allows them “to work more efficiently with our domestic and international partners as we manage groundfish fisheries, salmon, halibut, whiting, highly migratory species, such as tunas and sharks, and coastal pelagic species, such as sardines.”
Cutting-edge science, they added, would remain the foundation for all NOAA Fisheries activities on the West Coast. Close collaboration would continue with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. Agency officials say such collaboration is vital to ensuring science-based decision-making.
All office locations remain open in Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, but under a new configuration.
Rauch said the Long Beach office would remain open, easing some fears by California fishery and government leaders that the merger would make the agency’s regional management too Northwest-focused, leaving California fishermen and others too far removed from access to agency leaders.
New Protected Resources and Sustainable Fisheries Divisions will focus on coast-wide program responsibilities, including all of the agency’s authorities under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Endangered Species Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Four area offices will focus on protecting and recovering salmon and steelhead and their habitats, as well as other NOAA trust resources, in specific geographic areas.
Since NOAA owns buildings in Seattle, the lone regional administration center will likely end up there, although agency officials say they have made no final decision. Centrally-located Newport, Oregon – currently the homeport for the NOAA Pacific research fleet – has been mentioned as another possibility for regional administration site.
The West Coast Region merger is just one of several cost-cutting consolidations proposed within NOAA.
Despite all the assurances, many fishermen and fishery leaders are leery. Budget cuts almost always mean service and other cuts, they say.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and Glen Spain, PCFFA’s Northwest regional director, say NOAA is abandoning its stewardship role and leaving vital programs in a financial lurch at the most inopportune time. Despite NOAA Fisheries claims to the contrary, they and others believe the science would become the biggest loser in the budget cuts. They say the budget proposals feature “ideological gimmickry” in place of comprehensive fishery stock assessments, cooperative data collection, and commitment to strong, independent regional fishery management.
“This is devastating for working men and women in the already struggling fishing fleet,” Grader noted. “The 2006 reauthorization of our nation’s primary fishery law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act required that decisions made in federal fishery management be science-based. In other words, fisheries administration is to be grounded in science, not politics.
But the science - the research, stock assessments and data collection needed for sound fishery management - requires adequate funding.
“Where science is lacking, the fisheries are ‘data poor,’ and the mandated precautionary approach restricts or even halts fishing to leave a large enough buffer to prevent overfishing,” Grader stated. “Many of our fisheries are paying today for past excesses allowed when management lacked sufficient science or ignored the science.”
Nevertheless, budget cuts remain, and as of press time, the federal government was still partially shut down and at odds with itself over budget and other issues.
To learn more about the new West Coast Region and the NOAA Fisheries budget, go online to www.westcoast.fisheries.gov.