Sunday, April 29, 2018
H.R. 200: THE PENDING THREAT
Last week, H.R. 200, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fishery Management Act, received its Congressional Budget Office score.
That’s not good news.
H.R. 200 is a very bad bill, that contains broad exceptions to current requirements that stocks be rebuilt within a time certain and that annual catch limits be established for nearly all managed stocks. Worse such exceptions are so ambiguously worded that they could arguably be applied to just about any fish stock.
One provision would exempt from rebuilding deadlines
“…one or more components of a mixed-stock fishery [that] is depleted but cannot be rebuilt within that time-frame without significant economic harm to the fishery.”
That would pretty much be the kiss of death to any chance of rebuilding overfished cod or winter flounder stocks in the foreseeable future.
Another would exempt any
“stock that has been affected by any unusual event that make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”
That one creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through, because just about anything can be considered an “unusual event.”
Climate-driven ocean warming is making the Gulf of Maine less hospitable to northeastern groundfish. That’s never happened before. Sounds like an “unusual event” that justifies delaying the rebuilding of all of those species until…who knows? The bill doesn’t say. Could be forever.
At least six consecutive years of below-average spawning success are causing the summer flounder stock to decline. It’s not clear when good spawns might occur again, and it’s possible that flounder could become overfished. Such a long period of poor reproduction could seem unusual, so if overfishing occurs, under H.R. 200, the stock wouldn’t have to be rebuilt any time soon. Or, really, at any time.
And last year, the Secretary of Commerce reopened the private-boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that doing so would lead to overfishing and could delay rebuilding the stock by as much as six years. That was certainly unusual, since no official ever knowingly violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that way before. So folks could even argue, if not in good faith, that Gulf red snapper fell under the rebuilding exception, too.
H.R. 200 is written loosely enough to allow that to happen.
And H.R. is slowly making its way to the floor of the House of Representatives for a final vote.
The House Committee on Natural Resources marked up the bill last December, an action that was widely hailed by various anglers rights groups, such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance and Coastal Conservation Association, which oppose the current law’s science-based management approach. On the other hand, the committee’s favorable vote on the bill was broadly condemned by the conservation community, which called H.R. 200 “another ‘Empty Oceans Act’” because of its likely impact on fish stocks.
Since being reported out of committee, H.R. 200 has lain dormant, awaiting the Congressional Budget Office’s action. Now that it has received a favorable report—meaning that it will not have a meaningful impact on the federal deficit—the bill can be brought up on the floor for a vote.
That’s expected to happen in the next month or two, and there is little doubt that it will be approved.
Unlike previous Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bills, which represented broad bipartisan cooperation, H.R. 200 is an intensely partisan bill, written by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and other members of the House majority, with little or no meaningful input from minority members. It was voted out of committee on a party-line vote which presaged its eventual outcome on the House floor.
The good news is that no companion bill to H.R. 200 has yet emerged in the Senate, which even in today’s charged political environment maintains more of a deliberative, bipartisan nature than does the House.
Normally, that would mean that it was likely that H.R. 200, like its predecessor H.R. 1335, would bloom in the House, only to go to the Senate to die.
This year, even if no Senate reauthorization bill emerges, that might not happen. The anglers’ rights organizations, along with trade groups such as the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, supported not just one, but two bad fisheries bills this year, H.R. 200 and something that’s formally titled the Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act, which they call the “Modern Fish Act.”
The House version of the Modern Fish Act, H.R. 2023, was a bad enough bill on its own, weakening the conservation and management provisions of Magnuson-Stevens in order to allow anglers to overfish and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks.
However, the anglers rights crowd were so desperate to increase their kill, and the industry folks were so hungry to increase their sales in the short term, that they supported folding the House Modern Fish Act into H.R. 200, regardless of the harm that the latter bill would do to fish stocks in the
In the Senate, the Modern Fish Act took the form of S. 1520, which was a somewhat better bill than its House companion. A markup that occurred in February toned it down quite a bit more, so that the bill reported out of the Senate committee was less a malign piece of legislation that would harm fish stocks and more of a mean-spirited one, that contained a number of provisions seemingly intended more to harm the commercial and charter fishing sectors than to help the recreational folks.
But the seemingly harmless S. 1520 could easily become a Trojan horse that leads to the defeat of the current federal fishery management system.
Should a majority of senators be convinced by the anglers’ rights groups’ blandishments that the bill is benign, and S. 1520 is passed, it is not at all unlikely that the Senate bill would be sent to conference along with H.R. 200, as the 115th Congress’ version of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.
At that point, all of the truly bad provisions of H.R. 200, including the more extreme House version of the Modern Fish Act, would be back in play, and could easily be included by the majority into an ostensible “compromise” bill that might be passed by both House and Senate.
Should that happen, Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization, and a wholesale weakening of the key parts of current law, would be achieved through a back-door maneuver that provided little or no meaningful chance for consultation, deliberation and debate on the Senate side.
We could end up with a very bad bill becoming law, largely by default.
Thus, despite all of the upbeat propaganda about S. 1520, it is important that conservation-minded anglers contact their senators and let them know that those who speak in favor of S. 1520 do not speak for them.
S. 1520 may seem harmless, but appearances can be deceptive. In reality, it is a dangerous tool.
It is a tool that critics of Magnuson-Stevens would use to pry open the doors of Congress, so that all that is bad in H.R. 200 can enter and destroy key provisions of federal fisheries law.
There is one way to keep that from happening.
To end the threat of H.R. 200, S. 1520—the Modern Fish Act—must not pass.