Sunday, June 1, 2014


Sometime back in December, Washington Congressman Doc Hastings, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee released a “discussion draft” of legislation to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which is the law governing all fishing—recreational and commercial—in federal waters.

It was a truly bad bill.

Hastings called it the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”, which is bad news right there, since “flexibility” is a fish-speak euphemism for prolonged overfishing, and every time somebody talks about “strengthening” one community or another, you can pretty well bet that the rest of us are going to pick up the bill…

The enviros dubbed it “Empty Oceans”, and that’s just about right for a law that would keep our overfished stocks from rebuilding, and drive a lot of our healthy stocks down.

As for me, I looked at this misshapen beast of a bill and called it plain evil, for it contained not a shred that was good.

Last Thursday, the Committee marked up its final version of the bill, H.R. 4742, approved it by a 24-17 vote and passed it on for consideration by the entire House of Representatives.

That final version was a little different from the original discussion draft.  A few of the most egregious provisions were taken out, and one very long and perhaps even more egregious provision was added.

When all was said and done, the result was an effort still worthy of the “Empty Oceans” moniker, and one which, if adopted, would serve to roll back much of the progress made over the past twenty years or so.

A press release put out by the Committee on May 29 included the statement that the bill would

“insure that there is a proper balance between the biological needs of fish and the economic needs of fishermen,”
a statement that, in and of itself, demonstrates that Hastings and friends don’t have a clue about how fisheries really work--or, if they do have a clue, that they don't give a damn.

The “biological needs of fish” aren’t negotiable.  They’re biological needs, for God’s sake.  They are necessary if the fish are going to survive in anything like catchable numbers.

Fish need good spawning habitat, and enough good habitat in nursery areas to allow the fish spawned to feed, avoid predators and grow into the next year class of adults.

Both the juveniles and the adults that some will eventually become need enough food, if the population is to be healthy.  That means that forage fish and other components of the ecosystem—including many species of fish, crustaceans, mollusks and other creatures that are not intentionally harvested in great numbers, if at all—must be preserved to create a complete and productive environment in which fish and their food can thrive.

And for every species, once the harvesting is done, fish need to have enough adults left in the population to successfully reproduce and replace those fish which were caught, or which succumbed to natural mortality.  The precise number of adults needed differs from species to species, but if you take too many adults out of any population, and reduce its spawning potential below what is needed to replenish the stock—that is, if you create an overfished population—that stock is going to decline.  

Keep overfishing, and that population is going to collapse.

And when the population does collapse, the fishermen are going to have a pretty difficult time meeting their “economic needs” trying to catch fish that are no longer there.

Just ask the folks who used to make money from winter flounder…

The only way to assure that the “economic needs of fishermen” continue to be met is to make sure that the “biological needs of fish” are fully satisfied.  That is the only true “balance” possible.

Try to forge some sort of management compromise, that lets fishermen kill more fish than they should but not quite as many as they want, and a collapse is inevitable. 

Maybe it won’t happen right away.  

Maybe we’ll get into one of those death spirals first, where regulations keep getting incrementally tighter as the stock gets incrementally smaller, and the fishermen find themselves getting more and more squeezed between more and more regulations on one hand, and fewer and fewer fish on the other.

But sooner or later, possibly when something other than fishing puts additional, unanticipated stress on the stock, the collapse is going to come.

As I said, just ask the folks who used to make money from winter flounder…

Hastings talked about

“working with Members from New England and the Gulf [of Mexico] who are struggling with real fishing challenges,”
but he neglected to mention that the current "fishing challenges" were created by fishermen doing their best to evade the conservation and rebuilding mandates of the Magnuson Act, not by the provisions of the Act itself.

Gulf and New England fishermen would receive the same sort of benefit from Hastings’ bill as a drowning many would receive from a glass of water.

It would provide the New England and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils, which have already proven themselves unwilling and perhaps unable to rein in fishermen’s abuses, with a plethora of excuses that would allow them to continue to do nothing.

Pursuant to Hastings’ bill, managers could find that the problem lay outside of their council’s jurisdiction (in state waters, in international waters, or in the waters of another country, it doesn’t matter), or that fishery regulations alone won’t allow the restock to rebuild (so fishermen can just overfish the stock with impunity, and compound the harm caused by climactic or other problems).

They could find that rebuilding a stock in a mixed-stock fishery would cause too much economic harm in a fishery (meaning that stocks would never have to be rebuilt, if there was more money to be made, at least in the short term, by doing nothing) or that rebuilding one stock would cause another to become depleted (bolstering the hoary argument that “There are so many [fill in the blank] in the ocean that they’re eating everything else” argument, and overlooking the fact that fish have been eating other fish since the Devonian, but never really had any problems until Homo sapiens began eating a lot of them, too).

Or, managers could just find that unspecified “unusual events” could make it too hard to rebuild a stock without squeezing fishermen’s wallets.

Which means that Hastings’ bill would take us back to the days of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the law allowed the fishermen peopling the fishery management councils so many ways to keep overfishing stocks that they continued to do so, shooting themselves in the foot and driving a number of stocks—particularly in New England—perilously close to commercial extinction.

That’s bad enough.  There were plenty of other, equally bad things in the bill that would take much too much time to describe.

But Hastings’ trump card is hypocrisy.

For many years, fishermen complained that the management process was too complex and time-consuming, because managers not only had to prepare fishery management plans and various amendments to those plans, but also an environmental impact statement which complied with the National Environmental Policy Act

Hastings’ discussion draft contained a provision to address those complaints, effectively deeming any final fishery management plan or amendment to be in compliance with NEPA.

But the final Committee bill, which would still includes such a provision, adds a new and cynical twist.

While eliminating time-consuming NEPA requirements, a new 5 ½-page section entitled “Fishery Impact Statements” would create an entirely new NEPA-like structure, which would require a complex and time-consuming assessment of the impact of any fishery management plan or plan amendment on “the quality of the human environment.”

Such Fishery Impact Statement would have to be made available at least 14 days prior to the meeting at which any management plan or amendment would be finalized.  The requirements for such Fishery Impact Statement would be complicated enough to assure that the regulatory process would be substantially slowed down, and in some cases completely arrested.

That way, overfishing could continue for quite a bit longer—if it was ever halted at all—and fishermen would be able to pursue an entirely new avenue of litigation when challenging needed conservation measures.

Giving them a lot more time to empty the oceans.

Which, in the end, is really what the Hastings bill is all about—maximizing harvests, and thus fishermen’s profits, in the short term, while leaving far emptier oceans for succeeding generations.

Like the discussion draft which gave it birth, H.R. 4742 is a truly bad bill.

Whether you are a recreational or a commercial fishermen, or even someone who just likes to know that our marine ecosystems are healthy and intact, you ought to contact your local Representative in Congress, and do your best to see that H.R. 4742 gets the quick and ignominious death that it deserves.

If you don't, our fish stocks may be killed off instead.

And they deserve to live.

Because an empty ocean is a truly worthless place, of economic benefit to no one.

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