Thursday, December 14, 2017
DINING WITH THE DEVIL
“He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon,”
lest they fall into his grasp.
Yesterday, the various recreational fishing groups who have been trying for years to change some of the core provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, proved the truth of that adage.
Over the past year or so, we’ve heard such groups tout a piece of legislation that they call the “Modern Fish Act,” more formally known as H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017.
“The current federal laws have never properly addressed the importance of recreational fishing. This has led to shortened or even cancelled seasons, reduced bag limits, and unnecessary restrictions—none of which is good news for the recreational fishing industry.
“Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon. On April 6, 2017, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, or the ‘Modern Fish Act’ for short, was introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate…”
A coalition of angling groups, which includes not only the American Sportfishing Association, but also the International Game Fish Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Recreational Fishing Alliance, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, The Billfish Foundation and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation put out a joint release supporting the legislation, which said, in part, that
“The Modern Fish Act addresses many of the recreational fishing community’s priorities including allowing alternative management measures for recreational fishing, reexamining fisherie, s allocations, smartly rebuilding fish stocks, establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit and improving recreational data collection.”
For those who don’t understand all of the catchphrases, “alternative management measures” mean alternatives to the annual catch limits established to prevent overfishing; “smartly” rebuilding fish stocks means delaying such rebuilding to allow more fish to be killed each year, to diminish “socioeconomic impacts.” And “annual catch limits don’t fit,” among other occasions, when
“fishing mortality [for a stock of fish] is below the fishing mortality target; and a peer-reviewed stock survey and stock assessment have not been performed during the preceding 5-year period, [internal numbering deleted]”
although how one can be sure that mortality is below target without performing a stock assessment is not completely clear—particularly because another provision would exempt fisheries which, in the opinion of the Secretary of Commerce, cannot be adequately monitored by the Marine Recreational Information Program.
The joint release quotes the president of the American Sportfishing Association praising the bill, which
“addresses the core issues within federal saltwater fisheries management that are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing.”
It of course goes without saying that when “issues…are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing,” the public might be buying less fishing gear, so it’s easy to understand why removing such limits are important to ASA.
Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an umbrella organization to which all of the entities on the release, except the Recreational Fishing Alliance, belong, said that
“For decades, the recreational fishing community has been subjected to antiquated federal policies not designed to manage recreational fishing. The time is now to update these policies so families can fully enjoy our nation’s remarkable marine resources and continue a proud American tradition on the water.”
But just what are the “issues” and “antiquated federal policies” that are allegedly keeping anglers off the water? From what the release itself says, not to mention the text of H.R. 2023, annual catch limits that prevent overfishing, along with regulations that allow overfished stocks to be promptly rebuilt appear to be foremost among them.
Despite that, the supporters of the Modern Fish Act purport to support conservation.
“This new bill will give federal managers the tools and data they need to both improve access and promote conservation of our natural marine resources.”
Chris Horton, fisheries program director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, went further and claimed that
“The role that anglers play as conservationists and our dedication to having sustainable fisheries in the future is often misunderstood or even ignored.”
“America’s sportsmen are the original conservationists, and we fully recognize the importance of keeping healthy, robust stocks of fish and game.”
And at one time, with respect to some of the groups issuing the joint press release, that was even true.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act was last reauthorized in the closing days of 2006.
Back then, there were also two competing visions of what American saltwater fishery management should look like. On one hand, there was the bill that was ultimately adopted, sponsored by the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who lent his name to the law. On the other hand was another bill, H.R. 5018, introduced by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-California).
H.R. 5018 promoted what had come to be called “flexible” fishery management, which essentially meant management that was more tolerant of overfishing, less insistent on rebuilding stocks and generally friendlier to short-term profit than to the long-term health of fish stocks. For example, it would have allowed stock rebuilding to be delayed if, among other things,
“The Secretary [of Commerce] determines that such 10-year rebuilding period should be extended because the cause of the fishery decline is outside the jurisdiction of the [relevant regional fishery management] Council or the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities; the Secretary determines that such 10-year rebuilding period should be extended for one or more diminished components of a multi-species fishery; or the Secretary makes substantial changes to the rebuilding targets after the rebuilding plan has been put in place. [internal numbering deleted]”
Back in those days, I sat on the Coastal Conservation Association’s National Executive Board, and was Vice Chair of its Government Relations Committee. I was very proud as I watched CCA’s counsel, in conjunction with Mike Nussman of the American Sportfishing Association, lead the recreational community’s fight against the ill-considered “flexibility” provisions of H.R. 5018, and for the strong conservation and management provisions of Senator Stevens’ bill (although, in fairness, it should be noted that neither CCA nor ASA supported annual catch limits for all species, or accountability measures for recreational fisheries).
CCA recommitted itself to fisheries conservation in 2010, when it opposed additional and, in many ways, similar “flexibility” legislation, saying
“The bill does nothing more than delay the rebuilding of depleted populations…In that way, it is largely fighting last year’s—or perhaps last decade’s—fight. For most important recreational species, rebuilding has either been completed or is well underway, and little is gained by stretching out the last few years of recovery periods that are already well underway. The exceptions are those complexes of slow-growing, generally deep-water species which support a mixed commercial/recreational fishery: New England groundfish, southern snapper-grouper and Pacific rockfish.
“…The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”
CCA did criticize requirements that all overfishing be ended by 2011, what it believed were overly precautionary provisions of Magnuson-Stevens and a lack of good recreational data. It also questioned the National Marine Fisheries Service’s ability to carry out the demands of the law. But its opposition to “flexibility” legislation, and its commitment to conservation, was very clear.
But after that, things changed. CCA helped found the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly known as the Center for Coastal Conservation). In doing so, it abandoned its autonomy and found conformed its legislative positions to those acceptable to the rest of the Center members, which included various industry members who were at least as concerned with current income as they were with conservation.
Early in 2014, CCA and other Center members collaborated on an industry-oriented report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which abandoned CCA’s long-held position and instead embraced “flexibility,” calling for
“Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines,”
and suggesting that
“Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt…the regional councils and fisheries managers [should] set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
The notion that “flexible” rebuilding times “are simply designed to drag out rebuilding in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue” had officially gone by the wayside, although the statement was as true in 2014—and is as true today—as it was when it was made in 2010.
With the commitment to timely rebuilding abandoned, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, its members and temporarily affiliated organizations were free to approach federal legislators who were generally seen as hostile to conservation, in their effort to have the legislation now known as the Modern Fish Act introduced.
Such effort probably reached its apex—or its nadir, depending upon one’s point of view—when the Center for Sportfishing Policy gave its 2016 “Conservationist of the Year Award” to Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Although Rep. Bishop is probably best known for his efforts to transfer federal lands, which are critically important to freshwater anglers and hunters, to state and local governments, who would in turn be free to lease or sell them to private interests, the Center announced that he earned the award
“for championing policies promoting healthy fish and wildlife populations and access to America’s land and waters.”
Yesterday, Rep. Bishop’s committee marked up a number of bills, including H.R. 200, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act. The Modern Fish Act was not considered; instead, some provisions of the Modern Fish Act were included in H.R. 200.
Whether such merging of the bills was initiated by the Center for Sportfishing Policy, or whether it was a sop thrown the recreational groups by a Committee intent on passing H.R. 200 is currently unclear. However, despite the fact that H.R. 200 contains more egregious exceptions to the stock rebuilding provision than did H.R. 5018, which was so effectively opposed by the American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association a decade ago, the Center for Sportfishing Policy is hailing the Committee’s favorable vote on the combined bill—even though its provisions weaken federal fisheries law so badly that members of the conservation community are calling it
“The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources voted to advance two pieces of legislation (H.R. 200 and H.R. 3588) today that threaten fish populations and the people who depend on them. Departing from the 40-year tradition of building consensus around federal fisheries laws, the bills failed to attract any meaningful bipartisan support and have faced opposition from conservationists, fishermen, chefs, scientists and other groups.”
It appears that Center for Sportfishing Policy, its member organizations and affiliates have indeed supped with the Devil.
And it appears that they’ve gone straight to Hell.