A Pandemic’s Effect on Fisheries – Council Operations Adjust to Meet Needs

[NEWSLETTER: Spring 2020]


Each Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., Council staff gather for a weekly meeting to discuss work issues and perhaps share a birthday treat. We are a relatively small group with 17 people, including technical staff, administrative staff and SEDAR stock assessment staff (the program is housed in our offices in North Charleston, SC). Council staff members offer support to Council representatives, including meeting planning, travel, technical support, document preparation, communications and outreach. There are times when we spend more time together than with our families. But all of that has changed.


March 17 was our last day in the office. Executive Director John Carmichael explained that until further notice, staff would be encouraged to work from home to help stop the spread of COVID-19. “Take the things you’ll need to work efficiently at home for a while,” said John. “I have a feeling this is going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.”


Fortunately, staff members can telecommute relatively easily and both staff and Council members have become fairly proficient at using webinars for communication. Many of our public hearings and scoping meetings are already conducted online to allow participation from across the region and we’ve held a few advisory panel meetings, committee meetings, etc. via webinar.


As staff, we did what we do best. We looked at meeting schedules, Federal Register Notices, briefing book deadlines, and became even more determined to keep moving forward on schedule for upcoming meetings, including the Council’s next quarterly meeting that was scheduled for June in Key West, Florida. Senior staff continued working with Council Chair Jessica McCawley and Vice Chair Mel Bell on a weekly basis, discussing issues and strategies for best dealing with changes to operations. “We’ve had to quickly adjust the way we conduct Council business as precautions have been implemented at both the state and local level to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” explained McCawley. “Our staff has been very supportive and our advisory panel members, SSC, and Council members are all adapting to a new way of doing business. This has been stressful for everyone, but I am proud that we are able to carry on our work. We will continue to operate in a manner to help ensure the safety of everyone involved in the management process.”


Rethinking Business as Usual

As we began switching gears to hold upcoming meetings via webinar and prepare for the June Council meeting, we also began hearing from our advisory panel members and other constituents. Everyone has been impacted in some way by the pandemic, but for many advisory panel members serving on species-specific panels, such as Snapper Grouper or Mackerel Cobia, COVID-19 was turning their fishing-related businesses upside down (A Pandemic's Effect on Fisheries: Personal Perspectives from Advisory Panel Members). It quickly became evident that it wasn’t fair to ask those advisory panel members to participate in upcoming meetings for now. Working with the AP Chair, the scheduled spring meeting of the Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel was postponed until a later date.


In early April, staff and Council members began taking a closer look at work schedules and the draft agenda for the June Council meeting, preparing an abbreviated version should a meeting via webinar be required. The results of three stock assessments—Red Porgy, Greater Amberjack, and King Mackerel—would need to be addressed by both the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) as scheduled for their May meeting and by the Council in June in order to stay on track for management. Dr. George Sedberry conducted his last SSC meeting as Chair via webinar, and both staff and SSC members worked long hours during each day of the 3- day meeting to achieve their directives.


Meetings of the Council’s Information and Education Advisory Panel and the Habitat and Ecosystem-Based Management Advisory Panel were held successfully via webinar and the results will be presented to the Council. Filling expired or empty seats on the Council’s advisory panels has been postponed until a later Council meeting, with the understanding that now is not a good time to solicit applications or ask that members reapply.


The Council’s June meeting will be held via webinar, a first for a regularly scheduled quarterly meeting. The meeting schedule has been modified to help prevent “webinar burnout” (a very real thing as this pandemic continues). The opportunity for online written public comment is available as usual and the meeting is open to the public via webinar. Agendas and briefing book materials are available, and a formal public comment period will still be held on Wednesday, June 10 at 4 p.m. https://safmc.net/june-2020-council-meeting-details/.


As John Carmichael notes in his Executive Director’s column in this issue of the newsletter, changes in Council operations have changed substantially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we continue to strive to meet the challenges, we encourage constituents to stay involved in the fishery management process. The Council office remains open and phone calls and email are answered by staff while we telecommute. Reach out to us or your local Council representatives with questions or concerns. As staff, we’re available except for 10 a.m. on Tuesday mornings. Our weekly staff meetings continue, via GoToMeeting of course. The jokes about looking like the Brady Bunch have tapered off and like most people, we look forward to getting back to a new normal soon.

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