Thursday, March 26, 2015


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in federal waters, is currently up for reauthorization.  That’s a really big deal, and I’ll be writing about it a lot, perhaps beginning this weekend.

However, in between the big Magnuson debates, there are always a host of lesser legislative essays that are rarely signed into law—few bills of any kind make it that far—but are filed by various federal legislators who wish to please, or appease, a particular constituency within their state or Congressional district.

Such bills are intended to address some real or imagined wrong—most often the latter—and with few exceptions would let folks kill more fish than is good for the stock.  It doesn’t always happen that way; the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act was the lynchpin of the successful effort to rebuild that stock after it had collapsed.  However, that happened thirty years ago, and I can’t recall Congress passing another “small” bill with anything close to the same conservation impact, so it’s safe to say that the good bills are pretty rare.

But the bills intended to up fishermen’s kills, well, they’re pretty common--in fact, too common by far.

The grandfather of them all is probably the Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act, which was sponsored by Frank Pallone, a Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, and Charles Schumer, a Democratic Senator from New York.  That bill has taken a fewdifferent forms over the years, but all employ the guise of “flexibility” to gut the most important conservation provisions of current law.

The “flexibility” bills were darlings of groundfish trawlers up in New England, who were still trying to kill the last cod, and with recreational fishing industry interests in New York and New Jersey—primarily, but not exclusively, the party boat operators—who were doing their best to kill enough summer flounder to stall their eventual recovery.

Such bills never came close to passage.  Unfortunately, a bill that included many of the worst aspects of “flexibility”—and some other bad stuff besides—was introduced in the House last year by Washington Republican Doc Hastings as part of the Magnuson Act reauthorization process.

The bill was so bad that it was quickly dubbed the “Empty Oceans Act,” by the conservation community, who was glad to see it die and maybe equally glad to see Hastings retire.  

Unfortunately, Don Young, a Republican representative from Alaska, has reintroduced his version of “Empty Oceans” this year.

But that is a story for another day.  For now, there are plenty of other bad bills to discuss.

A lot of them are being pushed by malcontent anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, who want to kill more red snapper than either the science or current law would allow.  

The most recent of these is the so-called Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, introduced by David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana who has been a long-time opponent of unpolluted rivers, unmined mountaintops and undrilled wilderness, and who is now apparently adding healthy fisheries to the list of things he's against.  

Vitter would create a “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority” to replace federal fisheries managers, a thoroughly cynical and senseless idea that I discussed in detail about three blogs ago.

That came on top of a bill called the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, which was introduced by Congressman Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida.  The so-called “conservation act” was an earlier and cruder version effort to turn red snapper management over to the states, and appeared to define “conservation” as allowing Gulf red snapper anglers, who were regularly exceeding their quota, to kill even more fish. 

About what you’d expect for these interim bills.

Lately, along with Vitter’s red snapper debacle, we have seen Republican congressman Rob Wittman of Virginia introduce something called the Healthy Fisheries Through Better Science Act, a bill in some ways reminiscent of the Fisheries Science Improvement Act introduced a few years ago by the normally pro-conservation Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, at the behest of—yes, you guessed it—red snapper anglers in his home state who were trying to discredit existing science in an effort to kill a few more fish (although in that instance, they were concerned with tightened regulations in the South Atlantic rather than in the Gulf).

Wittman’s bill, unlike Nelson’s, would require stock assessments every 5 years for all of the 500+ stocks that NMFS currently manages.  

That’s a laudable goal in theory, and I for one would like to see it achieved.  However, that’s not very likely to happen.  Wittman’s bill doesn’t appropriate a penny to get the work done and, as a practical matter, even if the funds were available a shortage of qualified stock assessment scientists would probably be an even greater obstacle to completing all of the assessments on time.

On the surface, it’s not clear why Wittman felt it necessary to introduce such a bill, as his constituents in the Mid-Atlantic region have little problem with unassessed stocks; all are assessed on a regular basis.  But if you consider the fact that Wittman is co-chair of the Congressional Sportsman’s Caucus, along with the fact that such Caucus is heavily lobbied by—once again—the red snapper folks, the likely motivation becomes all too clear.  There’s only one stock assessment that matters to them, and for the record, it’s neither George’s Bank cod nor summer flounder…

Wittman’s bill is likely to meet the same fate as most bills of its kind, but that’s not the real point.

Bills such as the Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, the Fisheries Science Improvement Act and the Healthy Fisheries Through Better Science Act—along with all of their infernal spawn and misbegotten lookalikes—don’t actually improve anything, conserve anything or make anything better, nor are they intended to.

Without exception, each such bill is a cynical effort to sidestep conservative, science-based management efforts, and undermine the current federal fisheries management system.

So far, such bills have been shot down in flames, with none coming anywhere close to passage.

But there is no assurance that will continue to happen.

One day, in the case of one bill, the stars may align.  An influential congressman and equally influential senator will manage to get one of these bills through committee and onto the floor, either on its own or, more likely, attached as a rider to another piece of legislation, passed by both houses and signed into law.

Should that day ever happen, be prepared for the deluge. 

The Red Snapper Management Improvement Act will be joined by the Gulf of Maine Cod Management Improvement Act, the New England Winter Flounder Conservation Act, the Better Data for Mid-Atlantic Black Sea Bass Act, the Blueline Tilefish Science Improvement Act and…well, you get the idea.

Any sort of rational management, based on sound scientific principles, will be undermined, and a free-for-all of species-specific bills, giving relief for management measures, will be loosed on the management world, reversing years of progress in rebuilding stocks.

It’s a pretty bleak picture, but it’s not going to change unless and until the leaders of the angling community begin living up to their obligations to actually lead, and to treat America’s anglers as adults capable of understanding and appreciating the need for sound fisheries management rather than as spoiled children who need to be indulged with pointless and potentially harmful legislation.

After what we’ve observed in the past couple of years, it may be that such leaders just aren’t up to the task.  They may lack enough good sense and guts.  But unless they get serious about fisheries bills, and stop supporting dangerous fluff, I fear that they’ll leave future generations with nothing save an empty and desolate sea.

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