Raining Fish

The BIO 560 class was in for a treat when NOAA fisheries biologist Twyla Cheatwood presented to the class this past Monday. Her personable nature and interactive demeanor made for an informative and enjoyable presentation. Twyla earned her bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University before pursuing her master’s degree in marine biology at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. She currently works under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) branch and specifically, she works for the Habitat Conservation Division in the Baton Rouge Field Office.

The first thing she said that really stuck out to me is that NOAA is “more than just a weather service”. As someone who frequently is out on a boat in the Gulf, I rely on the NOAA Marine Forecast to determine whether the weather conditions will allow me to do field work. I never realized how large the NOAA organization is or how many environmental themed “pies” NOAA has its fingers in until Twyla provided an overview. In particular, this was the first time I learned about NOAA’s Habitat Conservation Division and how essential their work is to maintain the coastal health of Louisiana.

One of the main objectives of the Habitat Conservation Division is to protect “the waters and substrates are necessary to fish for spawning, breeding or growth to maturity”, which are also known as essential fish habitats (EFH; Figure 1a and 1b). These waters and substrates include a wide, connected area that is threatened by natural and anthropogenic pressures. What surprised me is that nearly 1,000 of fish species found in the U.S. have specific descriptions of the desired habitats they require (NOAA 2016). Due to commercial fisheries being a popular commodity in the Gulf, federal fisheries are regulated with specific policies to protect both the EFH and to regulate the catch demand on these species. According to Twyla, there is an open comment period, in which the public can provide their input about specific fisheries. It is impossible to determine the quantity of each individual fish that is available within the Gulf waters; therefore, fishery biologists like Twyla examine the socioeconomics of the community when regulating fish species and their habitats.

Figure 1a and 1b. Essential Fish Habitat (Source: http://www.habitat.noaa.gov/protection/efh/).

In addition to fishing pressures, there are a variety of other activities that have the potential to negatively affect EFH. These activities include oil and gas activities, camp establishments, marsh management activities, and flood protection efforts to name a few. Any activity that would negatively affect an EFH area needs to be granted a special permit.  Twyla and her 4 coworkers have roughly 15 days to review a permit application, although they can request up to 30 days if necessary. Some projects are really complex and therefore need the entire 30 days to review. For example, the installation of a levee affects a large area surrounding it due to the water modifications, which Twyla described as it’s “not just the little footprint we’re worried about”.  Most importantly, the focus of projects should be to either avoid any impacts and to minimize impacts instead of only going straight towards mitigation. Mitigation should be the last resort. Twyla described the mitigation banking process as “a business” and that “the landowner can create marsh and make money”.  With the permit application process, ways to minimize and avoid any potential impacts of the project can be proposed and mitigation procedures can be thwarted.

According to Twyla, unlike the state side of operations, the federal government has a “10,000 ft view of things”, but not as many employees. In fact, the Habitat Conservation Division in Baton Rouge has only five employees to monitor all the EFH areas the federal government has jurisdiction over (Figure 2). The fact that they are already stretched so thin to begin with has me concerned with the future status of employment and what will be available to us graduate students once we finish with our degrees. With the federal government, you need to justify everyone’s existence to taxpayers. Therefore, federal entities are always understaffed and the environmental areas of concern are only expected to expand. In addition, with the federal budget expected to be cut by 20 % and 35 to 42% of the federal employees up for retirement within the next 2-5 years, there will be a huge transition within the federal environmental sector. Luckily, regulatory positions are essential, but regulation will most likely not be occurring to the highest capacity due to limited employees. Furthermore, with the polarization of the governmental parties, it will continue to be almost impossible to implement environmentally friendly policies (McCright et al. 2014).

Figure 3

  Figure 2. EFH areas managed by the NOAA Habitat Conservation Division (Source: Twyla Cheatwood).

With the expected large group of potential retirees, there needs to be more entry level positions to develop a new cohort of professionals.  In addition, there needs to be continued collaboration between NOAA and other federal and state agencies, such as USFWS, CPRA, Ducks Unlimited, and more. NOAA currently is a federal sponsor for the CWPPRA, which supports the rebuilding of barrier islands, marsh creation, and more. Lastly, there needs to be a presence of the surrounding community members pushing for sustainable policies that would allow these areas, such as the EFH, to be protected for future generations. We all have a say in our environment and the future of our fisheries.  As the great President Theodore Roosevelt once said:

“ Here is your country.

Cherish these natural wonders,

cherish the natural resources,

cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage,

for your children and your children’s children.

Do not let selfish men or greedy interests

skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance”.

Blog post written by Megan Nepshinsky


  1. NOAA. 2016. “What is Essential Fish Habitat?” Retrieved from: http://www.habitat.noaa.gov/protection/efh/.
  2. McCright, A.M., C. Xiao, and R.E.Dunlap. 2014. Political polarization on support for government spending on environmental protection in the USA, 1974-2012. Social Science Research 48: 251-260.
  3. Source for raining fish photo:http.s://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s–5aRGRZlh–/c_scale,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800/17h4s0vnaekigjpg.jpg.