Sunday, April 12, 2015


It is often been said that the Hippocratic Oath, traditionally taken by medical doctors upon obtaining their degree, advises physicians to “First, do no harm.”

Although that’s not quite true—the oath contains no such language—it’s pretty good guidance for not only physicians, but anyone who is charged with fixing problems, be they auto mechanics or bomb disposal technicians.

It’s particularly apt advice for politicians, who are constantly being asked by their constituents to “fix” legislation, even when the bills are not really broken.

I began thinking about such things recently after reading a couple of op-ed pieces on the website of the Alaska Dispatch News

One of the pieces was written by Stosh Anderson, a fisherman and former member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who operates out of Kodiak.  Entitled “Don Young seeks to unwind ‘Alaska Model’ for fisheries in Magnuson-Stevens Act,” Anderson’s op-ed hails the present law’s mandate that fishery regulations be based on science, that fishermen be held accountable for exceeding their quotas and that overfished stocks be rebuilt; it decries Congressman Young’s recently introduced legislation that would abolish or seriously weaken provisions of the law needed to conserve and rebuild fish stocks on every coast of the United States.

The other, penned by Congressman Don Young himself, is headlined “Stosh Anderson misrepresents Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.” In it, Young asserts that

“The April 8 opinion piece by Stosh Anderson…fails to represent the facts of the legislation I introduced to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.”
But did Stosh Anderson truly fail to represent the facts?  

Could it be possible that Stosh Anderson and Don Young don’t really disagree on the “facts of the legislation” at all? 

Could it be that Congressman Young’s bill is precisely the wrong medicine—one that will surely do harm—to cure ailing fisheries prosecuted far from Alaska’s well-managed waters?

Reading both op-ed pieces together, and applying a bit of local knowledge, makes it pretty clear that is the case.
Anderson said

“The [Magnuson-Stevens Act] is the foundation of sustainable fisheries management…
“The last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, in 2006, applied Alaska’s model of federal fisheries management—setting catch limits based on science—to the nation.”
Young doesn’t really disagree, saying

“Through foresight and willingness, our fisheries managers have developed and implemented a management system that is considered the envy of the world, dubbed the 'Alaska Model.'  This system has worked extremely well in Alaska due to annual stock assessments that provide up-to-date information to fisheries managers, a necessary tool for implementing an adaptive management system that allows for optimal conservation and use of our fisheries resources.”
So there’s no essential disagreement there.  Both Anderson and Young agree that the “Alaska model,” and by extension the model adopted in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is “a management system that is considered the envy of the world.”

That suggests that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is a pretty solid law, and that weakening it would be a pretty bad idea.  But this is where Anderson and Young disagree.

Except that, when you read closer, they don’t disagree.  Not exactly.

“Under Young’s bill, annual catch limits, set to keep fish stocks healthy for the long run, would no longer be necessary for managers.  Responsible timelines put in place to replenish depleted fisheries could also be loosened or open-ended, delaying economic and recreational opportunities that come from healthy stocks…
“We know that allowing catch limits above scientifically sustainable levels may result in short term economic gains, but in the long term it’s bad for communities, fishermen and processors.  Harvesting at levels that exceed sustainable models is a downward spiral that reduces harvest opportunities.”
Congressman Young actually seems to agree with Anderson, making it pretty clear that he doesn’t want to weaken the “Alaska Model” as it’s applied to Alaskan fisheries, and thus weaken the management regime that has made Alaskan fisheries some of the most successful anywhere in the world.

“To set the record straight, I have always applauded and supported the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for creating an unparalleled system of fisheries management…
“My legislation…will not change the way the NPFMC manages our fisheries.  Alaska fishermen and the communities that they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fisheries resources and the NPFMC will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions.  Regardless of the changes proposed to the MSA, the NPFMC will continue to utilize innovative practices to be leaders in fisheries management.  [emphasis added]”
In other words, the Congressman fully recognizes the worth of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and wants to reassure his constituents that any changes he makes will only hurt folks outside of Alaska… 

Congressman Young attempts to justify his misconceived bill (remember that, for all practical purposes, H.R. 1335 is nothing more than a retread of Congressman Doc Hastings’ infamously bad “Empty Oceans Act”) by saying

“the ‘Alaska Model’ has not worked in other areas of the country as well as envisioned—for a number of reasons.
There’s no question that the ‘Alaska Model’ of fisheries management is what all regional fisheries management councils should strive to achieve.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of timely stock surveys and the inability to provide adequate data for fisheries managers, other parts of the nation have not been able to successfully operate under the ‘Alaska Model.’  This lack of data has led fisheries managers in the Gulf of Mexico, the mid-Atlantic and other regions of the country to institute layer upon layer of precautionary measures due to uncertainty.  The results:  fishermen are unnecessarily losing out on harvesting opportunities, fishing communities, consumers, and those reliant on the nation’s fishery resources are being unjustly punished.  [emphasis added]”
It’s difficult to know how to begin responding to such a statement.  Maybe it’s best to start with the one clear truth, Congressman Young’s admission that “There’s no question that the ‘Alaska Model” of fisheries management is what all regional fisheries management councils should strive to achieve.”

Because if we all can agree on that statement, then we all should agree that it makes little sense to make the job any harder than necessary for those who “strive to achieve” the Alaskan Model’s ideal.

Yes, most regional fisheries management councils suffer from a lack of stock assessments, an overabundance of stocks to assess, imperfect harvest data, etc.  They still have a pretty formidable hill to climb before they can reach the peak of management effectiveness achieved years ago by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.  Even so, each council has already made its way partway up that hill.  One, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, stands just below the summit; it has already eliminated all overfishing and no longer manages any overfished stocks.

Yet, if Congressman Young’s bill becomes law, it would allow overfishing to continue and rebuilding to slow on every coast, effectively pushing all of the fishery management councils back to the bottom of the hill, and forcing them to begin the long, steep climb toward sustainability all over again.

It’s not just a foolish idea; it’s bad policy that will harm fisheries that are already well on their way to being rebuilt.

We need to impose a little honesty here.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the red snapper fishery isn’t suffering from “a lack of data.”  The last benchmark stock assessment is about 850 pages long, and roughly half of that is a report from the data workshop. It refers to 21 different stock assessment documents, includes 33 scientific papers designated as “Workshop Documents” and 50 “Reference Documents” dealing with everything from the transport of red snapper larvae by ocean currents to damage done to the species when a demolition crew dynamites the legs of an obsolete oil platform.

No, for red snapper down in the Gulf, data isn’t the problem.  The problem is that too many recreational fishermen, and the organizations that represent them—and pander to their basest instincts—are faced with a lack of data that says they can harvest more fish.  Instead, they are stuck with science-based restrictions.  Thus, they are trying to overthrow the entire federal fisheries management system, one that Congressman Young admits is “the envy of the world,” in order to kill a few more red snapper.

And they are not, contrary to what Congressman Young says, buried under “layer after layer of precautionary measures.”  Until a federal court imposed them in the case of Guindon v. Pritzker, the recreational red snapper anglers were subject to almost no precautionary measures at all…

Similar “problems” exist elsewhere on the coast. 

In the Mid-Atlantic, Congressman Young’s bill is a “solution” looking for a problem to solve.  We’ve already paid our dues on summer flounder; fish are abundant, bag limits have increased in most of the states, and size limits have gone down. 

In the Mid-Atlantic, we have more scup than we can use, and even our most controversial fishery, black sea bass, is largely a success story, with the stock fully rebuilt and the fish larger and more abundant, and attracting more anglers, than just about anyone can recall.  There, we still need some more data, but a stock assessment scheduled for next year will hopefully address that issue as well.

Therefore, Congressman Young really should not say that “the ‘Alaska Model’ has not worked in other areas of the country as well as envisioned” and mention the mid-Atlantic in the same op-ed, because the fact is that here, the Alaska Model embodied in the Magnuson-Stevens Act has indeed worked very well.

And as for New England, well, it wasn’t the Magnuson-Stevens Act that killed off all of the cod...

The 2006 reauthorization did finally put something of a brake on the fishermen’s greed and, for the first time, imposed hard quotas on a species that had been overfished for decades.  Like fishermen elsewhere, those in New England don't like the restrictions needed to rebuild the stock, and thus they seek “flexibility,” conveniently forgetting that it was the New England Fishery Management Council’s historic embrace of “flexibility”—days at sea, trip limits, but never hard quotas—that drove the Gulf of Maine stock down to 3% of sustainable levels in the first place.

It thus appears that Stosh Anderson must have the last word.  He notes

“What [Congressman Young’s] bill does is bring us down to the lowest common denominator rather than strive to improve our fisheries management.  If other regions don’t have the science to manage, we should expand data and scientific research, not gut our fisheries management law…
“It’s not clear why our congressman would introduce a bill that is actually bad for Alaska communities and the nation’s fish stocks.  What we need is an MSA reauthorization that moves us forward, providing opportunities to better manage fisheries and bycatch, and protect fishing communities by providing opportunities for fishermen to access our fisheries.  We need confidence that our fisheries managers put the long-term health of fish stocks first and that will be in the best interests of our coastal economies.”

That pretty much says it all.

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