Sunday, July 8, 2018


Barring an unexpected delay, H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, will come to the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, where it will be debated for one hour and then put to a vote.

H.R. 200 is a bad bill.  

It will substantially weaken the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, largely by creating numerous vaguely-worded exceptions to Magnuson-Stevens’ prohibition against overfishing, its deadlines for rebuilding overfished stocks and its requirement that annual catch limits be established for nearly all managed species.

H.R. 200 also weakens one of the provisions of Magnuson-Stevens that makes the law work:  The requirement that fishery management actions be based on the best available science.  It does that not by abolishing the requirement itself, but by legislatively determining that observations made by fishermen and other untrained and probably biased observers could be considered “best available science,” rather than leaving it up to scientists to determine what is good science and what is not.

There are a lot of other questionable provisions in the bill that, if it becomes law, will hamper the effectiveness of the federal fishery management system.  A number of those are the so-called “Modern Fish Act” provisions that were once included in a separate bill, H.R 2023, and are intended to hamper the commercial fishing industry, facilitate reallocating commercial quota to anglers in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions and allow anglers to escape their share of the burden for conserving and rebuilding fish stocks.

The fact that a number of respected conservation groups have taken a look at H.R. 200’s provisions, and appropriately nicknamed it the “Empty Oceans Act” as a result, doesn’t seem to have given the angling/boating industry coalition any pause at all, even though empty oceans aren’t very pleasant places to fish in, and are hardly conducive to boat and fishing tackle sales.

The bill that’s going to come up for a vote on Wednesday won’t be exactly the same as the bill that was originally introduced.  The sponsor, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), will introduce an amended version that doesn’t make the changes to the fishery conservation and management any better, but at least deleted language that would have made the National Environmental Policy Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act, Antiquities Act and Endangered Species Act inapplicable to fishery management actions taken pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens.

But don't let those changes affect your opinion.  H.R. 200 remains a lousy law.

None of the amendments would materially improve the bill, although one offered by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) would require that any fishery management plan, amendment or regulation intended to rebuild a fish stock that was not successfully rebuilt under a previous management action have at least a 75% chance of achieving its goal.  While that’s a worthwhile amendment, it certainly doesn’t make up for all of the bad language in H.R. 200—including language that would largely make the amendment irrelevant by stretching out rebuilding times for indeterminably long periods.  And as a practical matter, Rep. Huffman’s amendment is probably unlikely to pass.

Another amendment, offered by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island), would give Rhode Island a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, something that is arguably needed given the number of Mid-Atlantic fish stocks that are now following—or being chased by—warmer waters into southern New England.  A third, offered by Rep. William Keating (D-Massachusetts) would require the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt final standards for electronic monitoring of the New England groundfish fleet, which could be a big positive, but would also set a short, 180-day timeline for getting it done, and require NMFS to pay for the purchase and installation of the monitoring gear, neither of which appears very practical.

Beyond those, the rest of the amendments only make 
a bad bill worse.

Striped bass anglers will probably take particular offense to an amendment offered by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York).  Zeldin has already been working hard to maintain, or perhaps even lower, his League of Conservation Voters lifetime rating of 10 (his 2017 rating was 9)—and yes, that’s out of 100—by being a staunch supporter of H.R. 200, a bill that the League strongly opposes.  He’s now seeking to lower his rating with northeastern striped bass anglers as well, with an amendment that would allow striped bass fishing in the exclusive economic zone around Block Island, and thus increase striped bass harvest at a time when the bass population is hovering just above the threshold that marks an overfished stock.

Another amendment, offered by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) would create a “pilot research trawl survey” employing commercial fishermen in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions, which would operate independently from the NMFS trawl surveys.  While boats participating in such survey would be required to use “a peer-reviewed net configuration” supplied by NMFS, there is no similar requirement that a peer-reviewed survey methodology be employed, raising the risk, particularly given the weakened “best available science” language of H.R. 200, that participating fishermen would target areas known to hold concentrations of fish, and thus bias the survey, which would then be used to impeach (or, in the language of the amendment, “enhance and provide improvements to”) the data collected by NMFS.

Among other amendments, there is one that would relieve several south Atlantic states of their obligation to mitigate damage to aquatic vegetation caused by maintenance dredging of navigation channels in an inland waterway (Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida), one that would mandate a report that would, among other things, propose ways that “resource rent” from catch share program participants in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions (but, very noticeably, not in the North Pacific, where the volume of such rents would be very, very much higher) could be “reclaimed” by the U.S. Treasury (Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana), and yet another, dramatically titled the “Reef Assassin Act,” that would create a bounty on lionfish that would be paid in transferrable tags that would allow a commercial or recreational fishermen to catch red snapper, gag grouper, greater amberjack or gray triggerfish out of season or in excess of the prevailing bag limit or annual catch limit (Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida).

That’s all on the table for Wednesday.

If you don’t like the idea of H.R. 200 becoming law, I strongly suggest that you contact your House representative and ask that he or she vote against the bill, and against any specific amendment that you don’t like.

I’ve never tried to mislead my readers and I’m not going to begin now:  No matter how much of a fuss we manage to make—and, combined with everyone else opposing this bill, I hope that we make a big one—the odds are very high that H.R. 200 will pass in the House.  The very similar H.R. 1335 passed there three years ago, and that was before all of the Modern Fish Act hoopla began.  Right now, there are just too many people holding seats in the House that are hostile to the very concept of conservation; the pro-exploitation H.R. 200 is a perfect reflection of their philosophy of putting short-term profit on a pedestal, and disregarding other concerns.

But even if H.R. 200 passes, it’s important to keep its margin of victory as narrow as possible.

The real fight will be in the Senate, where currently undecided senators may well make or break the vote on a companion bill.  If H.R. 200 passes by a wide margin, such senators may well be convinced to support S. 1520 and send both bills to conference, where something truly ugly is likely to emerge.  

But if enough concerned and thoughtful legislators oppose the bill in the House, and supporters of fishery conservation make a determined goal-line stand, it may be possible to push any reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens back until after the mid-term elections and into the next session of Congress, by which time some seats may have fallen into more conservation-friendly hands, and a bill as bad as H.R. 200 won’t be likely to pass again.

So it’s crunch time, right now.

Time to pick up the phone one more time.  Time to let your House representative know that you think H.R. 200 is bad for fish, bad for fishermen, and bad for the future.

Because, quite simply, it is.

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