Thursday, April 14, 2016


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act celebrated its 40th anniversary yesterday.  Or, to be more precise, the Act became law 40 years ago, and anyone who values America’s living marine resources should have been celebrating that things worked out so well.

I chose to celebrate Magnuson-Stevens’ 40th year by joining up with a bunch of other fishermen and wandering the halls of Congress, trying to keep the “kill ‘em now” faction from ruining a great law.

It’s a tough fight.  The recreational fishing industry and the boat-building folks have decided that a quick profit now is better than healthy stocks in the future, so they’re doing all that they can to weaken the law in ways that would let overfishing drag on and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks. 

Right now, the law is being seriously threatened.  A year ago, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1335, which would allow fisheries managers to delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks and would even elevate the casual, self-serving observations of fishermen to the level of “the best available science.”  

Should H.R. 1335 become law, it would effectively reverse 20 years of effective fisheries management, and take us back to the days when a quick dollar always stood in the way of rebuilt fish populations.

“My legislation, HR 1335…will not change the way that the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] manages our fisheries.  Alaska fishermen and the communities they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fisheries resources and the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to use sound scientific information in their management decisions.  Regardless of the changes proposed to the [Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act],  the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to utilize innovative practices to be leaders in fisheries management…”
Rep. Young went on to explain that his bill was only intended to weaken Magnuson-Stevens’ effective provisions elsewhere, not in Alaska.  

Those seem to be the words of an inventor condemning his own creation, yet organizations that supposedly represent recreational fishermen support such a dismal turn of events.

The Senate has, to this date, been more reasonable.  It has not sought to unmake a good law.  However, there are now rumblings coming from that chamber as well, which suggest that some less-than-desirable legislation will soon emerge in Committee as well. 

Even if the Senate legislation is somewhat moderate, and not nearly as bad as what emerged from the House, it is likely to do only harm.  For when both houses of Congress pass bills that address the same subject, but differ in form, such bills are referred to a conference committee, which hammers out a version that is acceptable to both House and Senate.  

There is virtually no doubt that any Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that is acceptable to the House, which has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to any legislation that imposes even a modicum of restraint on the exploitation of natural resources of any sort, would rip the heart out of our current fisheries law.

Concerns over a bad conference bill are only nourished by the fact that both houses of Congress will recess in July, when members will be preparing for the upcoming election.  That guarantees that any efforts to put together a bill will either be rushed or, perhaps worse, completed after the election by a lame-duck Congress, which will include a number of members who failed to hold their seats and need not worry about the further consequences of their actions.

The best bill that can emerge from this Congress is no bill at all.

Given the time constraints facing legislators, that may be the most likely outcome.  Even so, it is important to continue to make legislators aware of how important Magnuson-Stevens is to the health of our fisheries and, in the end, to the health of the wider ocean ecosystem.

I think that we were successful in conveying that message to the Congressional staff who spoke with us.

There is an essential magic in the truth.  You could see it at work when we told our stories, and conveyed to legislative staff why we felt that it was worth taking time off from our jobs and leaving the comfort of home to come to Washington and fight to preserve Magnuson-Stevens.

We came from as far away as the Pacific coast, and from as nearby as suburban Virginia. 

We all had different motivations. 

There was a fishing guide from the Pacific northwest, forced to give up much of his guiding when the fish stocks he depended on crashed.  Anglers from New England lamented lost groundfish.  Charter boat captains from the southeast feared the loss of important reef fish stocks, while a Florida angler, who long sat on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, sought to maintain a management system that benefitted his section of coast.

I have been fishing for a very long time, and it was easy to invoke scenes from the late 1980s, when summer flounder had grown so scarce that you might put in hours to catch a single 14-inch fish, so small and so thin that you could hold it up to the sun and see the shape of its bones, and compare it to today, when a 5-pound fish is too small to even raise eyebrows.

I could talk of years long ago, when New England groundfish still swam in abundance, and winter flounder carpeted the bottom of Long Island’s bays.  And I could describe how the New England Council’s failure to impose hard poundage quotas helped lead to the desolation that we see today.

You could see that the stories hit home.

But the fight isn’t just about defense; Magnuson-Stevens can, in fact, be improved.  Perhaps the biggest improvement needed is the recognition that fish provide food not only for people, but for a myriad of oceanic life, and that such life, too, must be fed.  So I talked about the need to protect forage, things I saw last summer, when thirty fathoms of sand eels clogged the ocean south of Long Island and east of New Jersey.

We often forget that, no matter how much they care for our oceans, legislative staff don’t spend much time offshore.  

They need to see through our eyes and our words the yellowfin tuna that fed on those sand eels, along with the bluefin, skipjack and grey, lurking sharks that slid through the waters and fed on them, too.  

They need to feel, on a gut level, the majesty of a fin whale, fully seventy feet long, as it rolls on the surface just 10 yards abeam, straining sand eels out of the sea.   They need to know the connection between all of those sand eels and the female dolphin that swam, with her calf, beneath my boat’s bow.

As we sat in the offices and told those clear truths, you could see them take root and blossom in the staffers’ eyes.  

We were there to tell our message, and have it understood.
In the end, I think we succeeded, at least with the persons we met.  

The fight is a long way from over; a win is in no way assured.

But truth is a powerful weapon, and the truth is that Magnuson works. 

We only need to convey that, and we'll have a good chance to prevail.

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