Where the sea meets the sky: government agencies formalize collaboration

20 09 2012

Unaware of the oversight of two different agencies, these seabirds forage perilously close to a fishing vessel.

We have a tendency to think of our federal government as a monolithic force with a consistent, and very general, federal perspective on things. As one delves into the day to day activities of particular government agencies, it becomes rapidly clear how distinct, separate, and sometimes even isolated they are from each other. In our experience with SEANET, we have worked most closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), followed rather closely by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically their National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The list of acronyms grows ever more dizzying, as we have had occasion to interact with The USDA and their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and within that, their Wildlife Services (WS) division. When we work on a disease outbreak with the federal government, it’s (strangely) through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). A project like ours tends to cross the boundaries between these agencies on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, so it can be a challenge to remember that they do not, necessarily, keep in close contact with each other. This is not a criticism: these so-called “siloed” agencies each have their own mandates and areas of focus. With so much information and so many resources to manage, we require specialized agencies to keep on top of it all. In fact, we revere specialized knowledge and expertise in our daily lives; smart as a rocket scientist may be, I’d prefer she not deliver my baby or represent me in a court of law.

So given the need for specialization and a somewhat narrow focus, the question is, how can these agencies ensure communication and collaboration when their mandates and purviews do overlap? Two such parties, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have now issued a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), outlining their shared and divergent interests, the need for increased information sharing, and greater cooperation. The MOU, at its most basic level, says formally, “We will speak to each other.” But by putting this into writing, the relationship between the two agencies is publicly and officially declared. The MOU also gets into a great deal of specifics, and is focused particularly on seabird/fisheries interactions. With one agency (FWS) overseeing the well-being of aerial seabirds, and another (NMFS) the stewardship of marine resources below the waves, it has been difficult to effectively address the threats to either that occur at the interface between the two. Policies that end at the water’s surface will never be sufficient for either side.

Seabirds forage near fishing vessels and get fatally entangled in fishing gear. Endangered fish stocks may face additional pressures from growing populations of Great Black-backed or Herring Gulls. The interconnectedness and complexity of even a relatively simple food web defies the siloed nature of our agencies. FWS and NMFS have recognized the need to bridge the gap in order to maintain sustainable fisheries and protect seabird populations.

We at SEANET applaud this MOU, and as an independent, University-based program, welcome the formalization of a relationship between two of our most important government partners. From use of our Beached Bird Field Guides by NMFS Fisheries Observers, to SEANET volunteers documenting seabird entanglements in gillnets, our program fully inhabits the spaces between the groups and we fully appreciate the need for close collaboration.

We hope to both contribute to, and reinforce this newly stated bond between two agencies working hard to defend and understand the wide range of organisms inhabiting our marine environment.

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