The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) manages and regulates the nation’s fisheries. International trade in fisheries contributes $70 billion annually to our nation's economy, so NMFS, in conjunction with other agencies, plays an important role in ensuring sustainability of our oceans. As President Obama lightheartedly explained in the 2011 State of the Union: "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
It was more than just a laugh line. One year later, in January 2012, the President announced his plan to consolidate government and to merge NMFS (pronounced “Nymphs”) into the Department of Interior. See The Hill. But as President Truman once said, "the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." So consider the history: in 1966, the Marine Resources and Engineering Development Act launched a new national program in marine science and ocean exploration. Related proposals to create a Department of Natural Resources failed, so the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was eventually created within the Department of Commerce. NMFS, an entity within NOAA, also merged portions of the Department of Interior's Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife with the Department of Commerce's Environmental Science Services Administration. In other words, the recent merger proposal is a back to the future moment in federal natural resource management.
The proposal reveals a tension between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency concerns favor a merger of Interior and NMFS. Expensive leadership positions could be reduced, less interagency coordination will be needed, and some duplication of functions could be eliminated. Over time, a Department of Natural Resources might even become reality. One department could manage and regulate all our nation’s resources, from sea to shining sea, on subjects ranging from ocean energy to mountaintop mining. Effectiveness, however, suggests that thoughtful caution is warranted, for three reasons.
First, the effort to reduce duplication could lead to a loss of niche expertise. Huge differences exist between managing mountains, forests, deserts, prairies, wetlands, estuaries, coral reefs and the oceans. Moreover, the White House is actively implementing the National Ocean Policy, seeking to transform our thinking about ocean management. These activities all require specialized expertise. And while the divide of expertise between Interior and NMFS can be frustrating, it also makes a degree of sense. Even in elementary earth science thinking, concepts divide between land, sea or air. If the Department of the Interior serves the land, then why merge NOAA into Interior? Why not a separate Department of Oceans and Atmosphere?
Next, the realities of regulatory independence must be acknowledged. No longer an independent agency within the Department of Commerce, a reorganized NMFS would share walls with governmental entities responsible for dams, mining, grazing and ocean energy. In other words, when NMFS exercises its regulatory authority, for example, by implementing the Endangered Species Act and saying “no” to an industry activity supported by another entity within the Department of Interior (think oceanic oil exploration), NMFS will confront the same difficult interdepartmental politics that already affect the Fish & Wildlife Service regulators. (This is a major concern to the Natural Resources Defense Council.) However, it is also true that regardless of who resolves those inter-agency tensions -- the Secretary of Interior, or the Council on Environmental Quality -- all of them serve the President and his policies.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, budgetary politics must be considered. As an entity within the Department of Commerce, focused on a job-producing industry, NMFS maintains respectable funding, and high scientific standards, with a budget of roughly $1 billion in 2010. By comparison, even though Americans love our National Parks and endangered species, the National Park System and the Fish & Wildlife Service struggled to meet their mandates with annual budgets in 2010 of $2.7 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively. Would NMFS, when it appears before a whole new group of Congressional committees, as part of a $12 billion Department of Interior, still be able to compete with these other needs and priorities for its slice of the federal funding pie chart?
Perhaps all these concerns can be overcome, and the realities of our federal budget necessitate the merger of NMFS into the Department of Interior. But this dialogue over the structure of government will have lasting impact on our oceans, our fisheries, and our endangered and threatened aquatic species.
Photo of threatened olive ridley sea turtles from the State of Alaska Department of Fish & Game. While the President told his 2011 State of the Union joke about the management of endangered salmon, it becomes more accurate if told about sea turtles: "FWS manages turtles on land. NMFS manages them at sea. Imagine how hard it is to make soup?"
Keith W. Rizzardi chairs the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, teaches environmental law at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, and writes about the Endangered Species Act on Twitter @ESAlawyer