Thursday, June 4, 2015
THE LOW-WATER MARK
To no one’s surprise, H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management act, was passed by the House of Representatives last Monday in an essentially party-line vote.
Only five Democrats—four from coastal states in New England, which have always been hostile to the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s conservation and rebuilding provisions—supported the bill, while just three Republicans opposed it.
Crammed full of provisions that would delay or completely prevent the rebuilding of overfished stocks, permit managers to elevate transitory economic concerns above the long-term health of fish populations and effectively negate the provision of a number of important environmental laws, H.R. 1335 represents the low-water mark in modern fisheries management.
A very bad bill has been passed by the House of Representatives. The question now is whether it dies there, or whether its contagion will spread into the Senate and beyond, to ultimately corrupt and degrade America’s fisheries laws.
The answer is tough to discern.
It’s probably safe to say that H.R. 1335, in its current form, won’t get very far. It is a bill conceived by a House majority that has been consistently hostile to any form of resource conservation and always favoring short-term economic benefits over the conservation and preservation of either habitat or any form of life, terrestrial or marine.
The bill was bad enough that the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement of Administration Policy with respect to it, which said
“The Administration strongly opposes H.R. 1335…because it would impose arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that would harm the environment and the economy…H.R. 1335 would undermine the use of science-based actions to end and prevent overfishing.
“The current requirements of [the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] are working—the percentage of stocks that are subject to overfishing and the percentage that are in an overfished state are at historic lows. H.R. 1335 would interfere with the tremendous success achieved in rebuilding overfished fisheries by setting rebuilding targets that are not based on sound, credible science, and that unnecessarily extend the time to rebuild fisheries. In making these changes, H.R. 1335 introduces a series of ambiguous provisions that could improperly extend rebuilding periods, delaying the significant economic and environmental benefits of rebuilt fisheries to both fishermen and the Nation as a whole…
“If the President were presented with H.R. 1335, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”
Nothing is ever completely certain in politics, but that White House statement provides a pretty good clue that H.R. 1335 won’t get very far on its own.
In the Senate, normally a more deliberative and less extreme body, things look somewhat better.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which will be responsible for drafting any Senate version of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization legislation. Senator Rubio has already stated that any such bill that comes out of the Senate will have to have true bipartisan support. He has also already reintroduced his Florida Fisheries Improvement Act, which is in itself a very modest Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill.
Senator Rubio’s bill weakens some conservation provisions of the current law, but overall is far less offensive, and far less ideologically driven, than H.R. 1335. Although some provisions do have national reach, for the most part the bill does just what its name suggests—addresses fisheries issues that have been raised by his constituents in Florida and throughout the greater southeastern region.
Although America’s fisheries would be better off if Senator Rubio’s bill died somewhere short of the White House, if it represented the only changes to Magnuson-Stevens signed into law by the current Congress, the damage done would be relatively limited.
There is, of course, no assurance that a more damaging Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization will not appear later on, although there doesn’t appear to be anyone willing to introduce such a bill at this time.
There is also no assurance that the House wouldn’t try to convince the Senate to agree on compromise legislation that was somewhat less extreme than H.R. 1335, but still far worse than Senator Rubio’s bill.
It’s not clear that any such effort at compromise would bear fruit. The House majority responsible for H.R. 1335 seems to be as hostile to marine resources as it has been to gray wolves, sage grouse and even clean water. It is hard to imagine that it would not wage a very strong fight to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Antiquities Act, as such laws apply in the ocean, as a prelude to efforts to weakening or abolishing the same laws as they apply to rivers, lakes and dry land.
It is also unlikely that the House majority, typically skeptical if not aggressively hostile to science and science-based conservation efforts, would want to move very far from its current proposals to gut the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.
On the other hand, assuming that Senator Rubio is sincere in his insistence on a bipartisan reauthorization bill, it is just as unlikely that the Senate minority would agree to the ideologically extreme provisions of H.R. 1335.
That could lead to gridlock, which would be the best outcome of all. However, it is also very possible that one side will blink, and that a compromise—or perhaps a House version of Senator Rubio’s bill—will be passed.
In that case, it will be up to the White House, which will probably base its veto decision on just how offensive any compromise turns out to be.
Thus, anglers concerned with their fisheries' future need to be vigilant, and make every effort to keep a bad bill from ever getting to the President’s desk, so that such decision need never be made.