Sunday, July 14, 2019


H.R, 4742 proposed a complete restructuring of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States, in an effort to weaken the conservation and management measures that have made Magnuson-Stevens such an effective fisheries management tool. 

That, in itself, was nothing unusual.  Ever since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 required federal managers to end overfishing, promptly rebuild overfished stocks and use the best available science to manage fisheries, some members of the recreational and commercial fishing communities, who were more concerned with keeping landings high in the short term, and the economic benefits associated with such landings, rather than in the long-term health of fish stocks, have been trying to chip away at the foundations of fisheries law.

Rep. Hastings’ bill upped the ante. 

Not surprisingly, a bill that proposed such radical changes to a successful federal fisheries law became the target of conflicting comments.

“RFA has argued against the rigid and inflexible nature of fixed rebuilding deadlines since the last reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens…
“HR 4742 would also make modifications to allow the regional fishery management councils to set ‘annual catch limits’ in consideration of changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of fishing communities.  It would also permit councils to set multiyear annual catch limits to afford some stability in recreational specifications…”

“We would have liked to have seen more done in this bill to address the needs of the recreational fishing community.  This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits and improving stock assessments for data-poor fisheries, but unfortunately our top priorities are not meaningfully addressed.”
Other members of the angling community, who were more aware of the benefits conferred on fishermen by healthy stocks and conservation-oriented management, were completely opposed to the bill.  During the House markup process, Capt. Jamie Geiger, a Florida charter boat operator, testified before the relevant committee, saying, in part, that

“Now is not the time, just 7 years into recovering our fisheries, to make changes in a wisely crafted, successful bipartisan bill, negating the efforts of fishers and hard work done by fishery management councils and NOAA Fisheries to date, especially with the effect of returning fisheries management to a period when our fisheries and fishers suffered under a system of political influence and short-term economic decisionmaking. 
“I strongly urge Congress exercise its courage and political will and leave in place the proven and amply flexible requirements in the 2006 reauthorization, and allow the long-term economic benefits to the resource and fishermen accrue with recovered long-term sustainable fisheries…”

However, the most compelling testimony came not from the recreational nor the commercial industry, nor from anyone else with a vested economic interest in the fishery management process.  Instead, it came from Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of Stony Brook University in New York, a very respected fishery scientist who has had years of experience inside the federal fishery management system.  Dr. Pikitch said

“During my 30-plus-year career beginning on Oregon, conducting research of commercial fishing vessels, I have been deeply involved in fishery science and management.  While serving on the scientific and statistical committees of the Pacific and New England Councils during the 1980s and 1990s, I witnessed firsthand how flexibility was used to avoid addressing difficult problems.
“Scientific advice was often ignored.  Political pressure was applied to delay action desperately needed to prevent overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.  Over-fishing continued, even on extremely depleted stocks.  Coastal communities faced economic hardships, due to collapsing fish populations.  Congress took notice.  In 1996, and then in 2006, the law was amended, strengthening the overfishing provisions and ensuring the foundational importance of science.
“Consequently, we have turned the corner.  Many fish populations have been rebuilt.  The number experiencing overfishing has declined.  And science-based catch are now in place for all federally-managed fish.
“In addition, fisheries profitability has increased.  And jobs, even in the recreational sector, have been created.  Although we have more work to do, the state of our fisheries is improving.  It is certainly stronger now than at any time during my professional career.
“I am very concerned, however, with [H.R. 4742], as it rolls back key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that have boosted the health of our fisheries.  Among its shortcomings, [H.R. 4742] would weaken the Act’s rebuilding requirements, reverse recent gains in science-based fisheries management, diminish the ability of managers to prevent overfishing of forage fish, and put basic fishery data, including information collected with taxpayer support, off-limits to the general public.  Rather than revert to using policies and practices that were not successful in the past, we should build on the successes of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”
Despite Dr. Pikitch’s insightful testimony, H.R. 4742 made it through the committee process.  However, it died on the House floor, where no vote was ever taken.

Unfortunately, bad fisheries bills, and particularly this bad fisheries bill, have as many lives as an old B-movie monster, and keep coming back from the dead every time that folks think that they are finally defeated for good.

Soon after the first death of H.R. 4742, Doc Hastings retired from Congress, never to return, but his bill came back in March 2015, this time designated H.R. 1335 and sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).  

The resurrected legislation rampaged around the House long enough to get passed, but the Senate wasn’t foolish enough to feed that particular beast, and the bill died a much-deserved death in the upper chamber.

In January 2017, Rep. Young and his irredeemable bill were back again, this time in the guise of H.R. 200.  It looked largely the same as it had when it was previously introduced. 

With such support, H.R. 200 passed in the House on a relatively close, mainly party-line vote, but wiser heads in the Senate successfully caged it up and made sure that it died once again.

There was reason to hope that, after the 2018 mid-term elections and the change of control in the House, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act had finally breathed its last breath.  But like so many hopes, this one was in vain.

The new twist this year is that Rep. Young has found a co-sponsor, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ), and that collaboration allows them to call the new bill a “bipartisan” effort, even though Van Drew is hardly representative of the Democratic Party’s position on fisheries issues.  Instead, he is very representative of his coastal constituency in southern New Jersey, where fisheries conservation, in any form, is viewed with about the same enthusiasm, and a far more rancor, than cockroaches at a quaint Cape May inn.

“Mr. Young and Mr. Van Drew are very well versed on the current Magnuson-Stevens bill [sic] and how it penalizes fishermen while stocks are healthy.  Thanks to both of these great fisheries issue leaders for taking on the challenge of pragmatic Magnuson reform.”
However, the major national recreational fishing groups have not yet commented on the legislation.

The Garden State Seafood Association, the leading commercial fishing organization in New Jersey, also praised the bill, with its Executive Director saying that the organization

“has been advocating for MSA reform since 2009.  We sincerely hope that Congressman Van Drew will receive the support he deserves from all commercial fishing groups.”
Lund’s Fisheries, a Cape May-based commercial fishing company that specializes in high-volume landings of low-value forage species, has also endorsed the bill.  At least a few other regional fisheries associations, located elsewhere in the nation, also seem to be backing the legislation.  

It’s not yet clear how broad any national commercial support will be.

On the other hand, the conservation community appears, not surprisingly, to be opposed.  Of those who have taken positions, the Ocean Conservancy issued a very blunt statement that

“The fourth time is not a charm.  The ideas proposed in H.R. 3697 were bad when they were first introduced in 2013, and they’re still bad today,”

“America is a fishing nation.  We need strong laws to ensure we can protect the jobs and livelihoods that depend on this truly American way of life.  Unfortunately, the bill introduced yesterday is yet one more example of U.S. leadership being jeopardized by special interests.  This legislation would be catastrophic for the health of the oceans—and it could cost us some of our favorite seafood too.”
Other conservation groups will undoubtedly be announcing their positions soon.

But whatever they say, it’s clear that the Beast has risen from the dead one more time.  And its also clear that conservation-minded anglers will have to join together and, along with everyone one else who supports healthy fish stocks, prepare to fight the same old fight at least one more time.

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