Thursday, June 28, 2018
Since last December, a number of anglers’ rights, tackle industry and boat industry groups have been promoting a bill designated H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.
There was nothing particularly notable about H.R. 200 when it was first introduced. Like H.R. 1335 in the 114th Congress, and H.R. 4742 in the session before that, all of which shared the same title, H.R. 200 sought to weaken the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act by adding exceptions and substantial ambiguity to provisions prohibiting overfishing and requiring the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks.
Probably the best example of that is a provision in H.R. 200 that would permit a rebuilding guideline to be extended for an undefined period if
“the Secretary [of Commerce] determines that the stock has been affected by unusual events that make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”
Given that we fish in a constantly changing ocean, can you imagine any fishery where a claim couldn’t be made that “unusual events” intervened?
And remember that nothing in the provision requires such “unusual events” to be related to a species’ biology or to its habitat or ocean conditions. Unexpectedly high levels of overfishing, political actions or even events affecting a completely unrelated fishery that could have a spillover effect and lead to “significant economic harm to fishing communities” when combined with the short-term impacts of the rebuilding plan could all be used as excuses to invoke the section.
And should such ambiguous language ever be referred to the courts to review, such courts would have no clear legislative guidance to use when shaping their decisions. That’s a dangerous thing to allow, particularly at a time when many extremely commerce-friendly judges are being appointed to the federal bench.
In short, H.R. 200 is just another one of those laws that the Coastal Conservation Association contemplated a few years ago, when it wrote that
“…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.
“Claims that the current rebuilding deadlines don’t take biological or ecological considerations into account are false. The current law permits the 10-year deadline to be exceeded when the biology of the fish requires it, in which case the rebuilding period is generally one mean generation (the time it takes a fish of the affected species to mature) plus 10 years.
“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. [emphasis added]”
The “Flexibility Act” described by CCA at the time was H.R. 1584, the Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act of 2009, which was not a broad reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, like H.R. 200, but narrowly limited the harm it could do to rebuilding timelines.
H.R. 200 is far broader and far more dangerous.
Even so, CCA’s comments about “flexibility” are as true today, when applied to the rebuilding provisions of H.R. 200, as they were nearly a decade ago when applied to what were, if anything, the slightly less egregious provisions of H.R. 1584.
Despite that, CCA and the other organizations marching under the banner of the Center for Sportfishing Policy are actively supporting H.R. 200 these days.
They’re supporting the bill because certain provisions of what they refer to as the “Modern Fish Act,” legislation that would free recreational fishermen of the responsibility of sticking to annual catch limits that prevent overfishing, and hold them accountable if overfishing occurs, has been added to the bad bill, along with other language designed to increase the recreational harvest.
, so that CCA members and other anglers could “drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of” recreational “fishing pressure to occur.”
Apparently, the groups aligned with the Center for Sportfishing Policy are willing to live with all of the harm that H.R. 200 could cause America’s fish stocks, so long as they can end up contributing to the damage and increasing the recreational kill. They’re actively urging passage of the law.
What makes that all the more remarkable is that while the Center for Sportfishing Policy folks, who claim to be the “first conservationists” in their public relations blitz, are supporting this harmful bill, the commercial industry, which the Center often casts as the villains, are split on the issue.
“HR 200 is opposed by…several fishing groups, including The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. They say it would set fisheries policies back in time, further endangering stocks.
“Share the Gulf, a coalition of fishermen, restaurants and other businesses that serve the fishing industry, has also expressed its opposition.
“However, several fishing industry groups are squarely behind the measure, including the West Coast Seafood Processors’ Association, the Southeastern Fisheries Association and the Garden State Seafood Association…
“The Seafood Harvesters of America favors some parts of the bill and opposes others…”
It’s pretty notable when recreational fishermen, who like to cast themselves as the “good guys,” are more unified in their support of a bill that would weaken conservation measures than is the commercial fishing industry, who is often stigmatized as caring for nothing but short-term profits—something that commercial fishermen in many areas, including the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan coast, are demonstrating is clearly untrue.
And unlike the recreational groups, who continue, beyond all reason, to sell H.R. 200 as a conservation bill, Undercurrent News clearly notes that the legislation will
“Give regional fishery management councils the flexibility to consider other factors when setting catch limits beyond the [annual catch limits] recommended by their scientific advisory panels, including, for example, environmental conditions, changes in the ecosystem and species with unique biological characteristics. Under current law, the [fishery management councils] are required to follow the [annual catch limits] their scientific panels request regardless of other factors;”
“Replace the 10-year deadline on stock-rebuilding programs, giving the councils more freedom to use the biology and life cycle of each species…”
So no one on the commercial side is trying to blow any smoke about what’s going on here. H.R. 200 is clearly about weakening prohibitions against exceeding science-based catch limits and delaying the recovery of overfished stocks. Unlike the recreational proponents of the Modern Fish Act, they’re willing to put their cards on the table and say, right up front, what H.R. 200 will do.
However, the Modern Fish Act supporters should be given credit for at least one thing. They’ve finally admitted, without any hedging, that H.R. 2023, the original “Modern Fish Act” legislation, is dead, and that H.R. 200, as bad as it is, is being fully embraced as the House Modern Fish Act bill. In an article appearing on June 21 in Boating Industry, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a key member of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, announced that
“Next Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the Modern Fish Act (MFA)—which modernizes outdated regulations that govern recreational fishing in saltwater. In addition, the U.S. Senate is moving forward with similar legislation.”
As it turned out, neither sentence was true.
The House never voted on H.R. 200, pushing that vote to some time after the 4th of July recess—although it was H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, and not the much narrowly-drafted H.R. 2023, Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act, or “Modern Fish Act,” that folks believed, for a while, would come up for a vote. That makes it very clear what sort of bill the Modern Fish Act supporters are willing to back in order to put a few more fish in their coolers.
And anyone who says that H.R. 200 is “similar legislation” to the far less comprehensive and nearly harmless S. 1520, which is pending in the Senate, has either never read the two bills or has, at best, a very casual and distant relationship with the truth.
Although such statement does reveal a mindset to get them both passed and bring them together in conference, where the many bad provisions of H.R. 200 can easily emerge in the resulting bill.
But at least, now, the cards are all on the table.
Modern Fish Act supporters aren’t just pushing a modest little bill that will tweak Magnuson-Stevens and make it a bit friendlier to anglers. They are full-out in support of H.R. 200, legislation that will badly cripple the current saltwater fishery management system by allowing regional fishery management councils to sidestep science-based catch limits and stock rebuilding plans.
To them, H.R. 200 is the Modern Fish Act.
Which clearly explains, without need for further words, why the Modern Fish Act, in all of its current forms, should never, under any circumstances, become law.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
For well over a year, anglers and federal legislators have been the targets of a sophisticated and very well-funded public relations effort designed to convince them to support the so-called “Modern Fish Act,” a bill that would weaken key provisions of the (Magnuson-Stevens) in order to increase recreational harvest.
that the legislation could accomplish many of their goals, including “allowing alternative management for recreational fishing, reexamining fisheries allocations, smartly rebuilding fishery stocks, establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit and improving recreational data collection.”
The problem is that no bill currently moving through Congress will do what the Modern Fish Act supporters describe, although there is pending legislation that would either fall far short of meeting those goals or damage the current federal fishery management system far more than Modern Fish Act proponents are willing to admit.
That wasn’t always the case. When the Modern Fish Act effort was publicly launched in 2017, it involved two similar bills, (R-LA), in the House of Representatives, and (R-MS), in the Senate. Both bills were titled the “Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act of 2017,” and both arguably advanced the goals of Modern Fish Act supporters.
Although the language of the bills differed somewhat, the differences were small enough that no one doubted that they could be reconciled in a conference committee composed of House and Senate members, with the result being a compromise that was, on balance, very similar to the original legislation.
Today, the situation is very different.
S. 1520, the Senate version of the Modern Fish Act, was . However, was very different from the bill that had originally been introduced.
“Direct Fishery Management Councils (Councils) to review allocations to commercial and recreational fishing sectors every 5 years.
“Clarify that the Councils [already] have the authority to use certain fishery management measures in a recreational fishery in developing a management plan or proposed regulation.
“Authorize Councils to establish annual catch limits for multispecies complexes or annual limits for each year in a 3-year period.
“Direct the Secretary of Commerce to develop a report to Congress on facilitating greater incorporation of data, analysis, stock assessments, and surveys from State agencies and non-governmental sources…”
While the current version of S. 1520 would require a reexamination of the allocation of fishery resources and has a chance, depending on the conclusions reached in the proposed report by the Secretary of Commerce, of improving fisheries data, it would no longer materially affect the establishment of annual catch limits or the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks.
In fact, that version contains a “Rule of Construction” section, making it clear that current provisions that prohibit overfishing, hold sectors accountable if they do overfish, and require the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks will not be affected by the bill.
Thus, S. 1520 has been largely rendered harmless; its provisions are now more of a nuisance, which place unnecessary burdens on the fishery management process, than they are a direct threat to science-based fishery management and the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.
Ironically, that’s exactly what now makes S. 1520 so dangerous.
To understand why, it’s necessary to look at what happened with the Modern Fish Act in the House.
Despite that accompanied its introduction, H.R. 2023, the Modern Fish Act bill first introduced in the House of Representatives, never got off the ground. It was where, after hearings were held in September 2017, the bill effectively died.
Normally, that would be good news. But in the case of the Modern Fish Act, it’s not good news at all.
That’s because there is another fishery bill that’s active and alive in the House. It’s a full-fledged Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization bill, , which was introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).
H.R. 200, as introduced, didn’t propose any ideas that Congress hadn’t seen, and chose not to adopt, before. It is substantially the same bill as , which bore the same title when Rep. Young introduced it during the 113th Congress, and not very different from , another identically-named piece of legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) in the 112th.
It is a very bad bill. In fact, it is such a bad bill that after Rep. Young introduced the essentially identical H.R. 1335 in the previous legislative session, he felt that , writing that
“My legislation…will not change the way 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 fishery resources and the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions. to be leaders in fisheries management… [emphasis added]”
In other words, H.R. 1335, and thus its successor, H.R. 200, was only drafted for the rubes down in the Lower 48 who don’t know any better, and not for Alaskans who need and value healthy and sustainable fisheries.
When the primary sponsor of a bill starts talking like that about his own creation, it’s not hard to figure out that the bill is no good.
Unfortunately, H.R. 200, unlike H.R. 2023, was marked up and favorably reported out of committee. So unlike H.R. 2023, it remains very much alive and very much a threat to Magnuson-Stevens and the health of fish stocks.
What makes H.R. 200 a particular threat is that, during the markup process, it was amended to include language from the Modern Fish Act. Given H.R. 2023’s failure to get out of committee, H.R. 200 is now the de facto Modern Fish Act bill in the House.
And that’s where the tie to S. 1520 comes in.
Should S. 1520 pass in the Senate, there will be no companion bill of similarly limited scope that has been passed by the House, and that could be referred to conference with S. 1520.
Instead, assuming that both bills are passed, S. 1520 will be sent to conference with H.R. 200, thus largely cutting the Senate, lately the more reasoned and deliberative body with respect to fisheries issues, out of the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization debate. The entire intricate process of drafting a Senate bill, which could be shaped by a bipartisan process, the committee discussions and markup and the debate on the floor would all be lost. The terms of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization would instead be decided by a handful of Senators and representatives meeting together and largely out of the public eye.
Thus, when anglers and Congressmen hear the blandishments of Modern Fish Act supporters, and they must understand that they are being told only a small part of the story, while the greater truth is concealed.
Instead of being an end in itself, S. 1520, the only true Modern Fish Act bill still in play, is being used as a Trojan Horse that, if passed, will open the doors wide for H.R. 200, a full reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, and a rollback of many of that law’s most important provisions.
The federal fishery management system, America’s fish stocks and America’s fishermen would suffer badly as a result.
S. 1520 is not a terrible bill. But if it passes, a terrible bill could easily become law.
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/
Thursday, June 21, 2018
I was perusing an Internet forum the other day, and came across a discussion of .
A few of the folks who commented noted that bluefish hadn’t been to abundant off their local shores in the past couple of years, and asked whether it makes sense to increase bluefish landings (the reallocation is being considered because anglers don’t currently kill their entire quota, while the commercial folks are likely to harvest those fish if more quota was given to them) at a time when abundance seems to be down.
Predictably, someone chimed in, assuring everyone that bluefish appear “in cycles” and a temporary shortage was nothing to get too concerned about.
You hear that sort of thing quite a bit.
A fish stock declines in abundance, perhaps new regulations are proposed, and folks start coming out of the woodwork talking about “cycles,” or the fish just going “somewhere else,” and arguing that no regulations are needed, because the fish will come back without any help from fishery managers. , although no one has explained quite why.
Now, there’s no question that fish, like most animals, go through periods of abundance and scarcity that result from various changes in their environment. But to call that a “cycle” is a stretch.
“an interval of time during which a sequence of a recurring succession of events or phenomena is completed,”
“a course or sequence of events or operations that recur regularly and usually lead back to the starting point.”
In either case, the definition requires a “sequence or recurring succession of events,” that is, a multi-step process that predictably leads to a particular outcome.
Thus, the fact that fish populations may, at times, be lower than they are at other times does not mean that the decline is part of any sort of “cycle.” That would require an identifiable sequence of events that would allow the decline—and the approximate timing of the decline—to be predictable ahead of time. A host of one-time occurrences, including overfishing, could be behind fish growing more scarce, and two different declines aren’t necessarily caused by the same things.
But fishermen usually don’t think that hard when they invoke “the cycle;” they’re merely trying to avoid additional regulation. As in “it’s not our fault, it’s the cycle. The fish will come back on their own.”
But even if it is a natural event that causes fish populations to go down, that doesn’t mean that fishermen won’t play a role in making things worse.
Fish have adopted over millennia to survive natural fluctuations in abundance.
Striped bass, for example, seem to experience poor spawning success when warm winters are followed by a dry spring. of collapse, and it took until 1995 to rebuild it.
When poor spawning conditions again occurred for much of the past dozen years or so, the striped bass population again entered a steep decline. But this time, regulations already in place, although not as restrictive as many anglers would have liked, were just restrictive enough to keep the stock from going into a tailspin. More restrictive management measures were put in place soon enough to maintain it just above the threshold that defines an overfished population.
In the Mid-Atlantic, the same thing happened with summer flounder. Consecutive years of poor spawning success, for reasons that are still unknown, has caused the stock to steadily decline, and regulations that were perfectly adequate to protect a healthier stock began to result in overfishing. Some people weren’t happy to see additional restrictions being placed on the fishery, but the rules were needed to keep the stock from becoming overfished, a situation that would have led to even greater restrictions.
Saying “It’s just the cycle” and taking no action would not have worked out there, at all.
Saying “the fish just went somewhere else, and they’ll come back” doesn’t do very well, either.
That’s probably heard most often with respect to striped bass every time someone suggests reducing the harvest. In that case, it usually takes the form of someone arguing that all of the bass are chasing bait offshore, coupled with a story about someone seeing stripers chasing mackerel or herring well out in federal waters more than three miles from shore, where fishing for them isn’t permitted.
It’s true that striped bass will sometimes chase bait ‘way out there, but their ventures away from the shore are usually short.
“a majority of the adult Striped Bass encountered annually on Stellwagen Bank [in federal waters] exhibit movement into Massachusetts state waters as part of their normal migratory and feeding behaviors.”
Even so, it’s common to hear fishermen say “they’re all out in deep water” when someone complains that the population seems to be on the decline.
Locally, near my home on Long Island, I see the same thing playing out with black sea bass.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the species, black sea bass are a small—mostly under five pounds—but very good-tasting species, which are very popular with both private boat and for-hire anglers. They are at high levels of abundance, exceeding their target spawning stock biomass by a significant amount, but have also been under a lot more fishing pressure ever since summer flounder abundance began to decline. As a result, regulations have been substantially tightened to avoid overfishing.
A lot of people, particularly those in the party boat industry, focus only on the high biomass, and not on the high level of removals. They constantly complain that the rules are too strict and that they should be able to kill many more fish. At a recent meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, a party boat captain complained that the season should start at some point in May (it begins on June 23 this year) because all of the larger black sea bass in the Fire Island Inlet area “move east” after that, leaving only the undersized fish behind.
It’s a nice story, but it isn’t true.
I’ve caught plenty of good-sized sea bass—four pound class fish—in July off Fire Island—when the season began in July. When the season starts in June, you don’t catch many bigger fish a month later, and when the season began in May, large black sea bass tend to get scarce by the end of June.
But that’s not because they “move east”—unless they’re headed that way in the trunk of someone’s car.
Black sea bass are structure dependent, and there isn’t that much structure off the South Shore of Long Island. There are a few artificial reefs, which thestate is substantially expanding this year, there’s a little hard bottom and quite a few shipwrecks, if you know where to find them. But that’s it.
When the fish move onto structure, they’re very densely concentrated, and black sea bass aren’t exactly reluctant biters.
Put a party boat with thirty or forty or fifty anglers—or more—on board above a piece of structure, and do that two or three times a day with five or six or seven different boats for a couple of weeks, and most of the bigger fish on the piece are going to get cleaned off pretty quickly. A few more will move in from elsewhere over time, but on the whole, the best time to catch a big black sea bass—other than while fishing offshore in the winter—is during the first couple days of the season, when the fish haven’t yet succumbed to the pressure put on them by private and for-hire boats alike.
But “move east?” No, they don’t do that.
Don’t take my word for it. . The study found that there were northern, central and southern sub-stocks of the northern black sea bass stock, and that the inshore dividing line between the northern and southern sub-stocks was roughly Moriches Inlet, at the eastern end of Fire Island.
More significantly, from the standpoint of whether the big sea bass “move east” in early summer, the study found that
“During summer months fish throughout the stock remain stationary in coastal areas with very little mixing among adjacent areas.”
Given the findings of that study—that the sea bass “remain stationary” and that there is “very little mixing”—the notion that big fish “move east” is pretty well debunked, as there is no contradictory study that might seem to support that claim. However, if you’re trying to convince regulators that regulations need to be relaxed, admitting that you’re already removing all the big fish off the wrecks under the current rules isn’t likely to yield the desired result, so I suppose folks feel that they have to at least try…
And that’s how it usually works with such stories, whether of “cycles” or fish “going somewhere else” for a while (not to be confused with fish really going somewhere else because waters are warming).
They’re all nice stories, but if you want healthy fisheries, stories aren’t good enough.
You need sound science. And science-based rules.
Sunday, June 17, 2018
I’ve been writing this blog for more than four years, and in that time penned about 450 separate essays on fisheries management and related matters. Sometimes, I worry that, at some point, I’m going to run out of topics.
Thus, today, I thought that it would be appropriate to thank the Center for Sportfishing Policy, and affiliated organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association and others, for running what may be the longest continuous effort to con Congress and the American angler ever attempted, and so giving me plenty of things to write about.
I’m speaking, of course, of the continuing effort to weaken federal fishery conservation and management laws, which has taken various forms over that time, but can be pretty well boiled down into three words: Modern Fish Act.
And yes, I know that I write about the Modern Fish Act in every other blog, and you’re probably tired of reading about it by now. But if it’s any solace at all, you can be pretty damned certain that you’re not anywhere near as tired of reading about that misbegotten piece of legislation as I am of writing about it, but because this is such a long-running and multi-layered con, with so much invested in its ultimate success, the second we let our collective guard down, the folks promoting the law are going to slip past and steal the future health of our saltwater fish stocks, so it pays to keep paying attention.
Today’s observations were inspired by another op-ed, penned by John Pfeiffer, president of Mercury Marine, a strong NMMA supporter, which appeared recently in the Kenosha (WI) Journal. a group which seems to be making an end-of-session push to get S. 1520, the Senate version of the Modern Fish Act, and by
Both op-eds are similar, not just in the fact that they support the Modern Fish Act, but in the fact that they target an inland audience, and inland legislators, who are not all that familiar with what goes on in coastal fisheries, and in the fact that in making their case, they have engaged in the sort of deceptive language that has been a hallmark of Modern Fish Act supporters from the beginning.
Dammrich’s begins with an interesting twist.
Freshwater fishermen, as a group, have been subject to size limits, bag limits, seasons and other regulations far longer than saltwater anglers. Most have long recognized that in most areas, good regulations are a prerequisite to good fishing; without them, most waters would quickly be, and in the past often were, “fished out.” So they’re not likely to be swayed by the complaints about “annual catch limits [that] don’t fit” which appear in some of NMMA’s other Modern Fish Act propaganda.
Instead, he makes a broader, more general attack on the regulatory process, writing
“With Lake Michigan to the north, the Wabash River to the east, the Ohio River to the south, and the Mississippi River to the west, Illinois has access to fishing no matter where you turn. But following all the rules and regulations can quickly turn a peaceful fishing trip into a major headache. [emphasis added]”
It’s a good gambit because, let’s face it, no one likes to be regulated. We complained about enforced bedtimes as kids, and about curfews in high school. As adults, we rail against red light cameras, even though we all know in our hearts that not running a red light is a very good way t avoid both traffic fines and a possibly fatal collision. But somewhere back in our minds, there’s this whole anti-Big Brother thing…
Thus, appealing to that rebellious instinct by a broad attack on fishing regulations is a sure way to win some degree of sympathy from anglers and others, even though most of those anglers probably don’t have much of a quarrel with Illinois’ angling rules, and probably realize that without them, there wouldn’t be too many fish left in the state’s waterways.
But once you have that sympathy, it’s easy to transfer it to salt water anglers who, according to Dammrich, are suffering under the current version of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. He tells the folks in Illinois that while their
“regulations may seem burdensome…they are actually far less constricting than those faced by saltwater anglers.”
The key to his argument is to present his allegations without any factual support.
If he tried to provide facts to shore up his position, it might be hard to explain why a regulation that allows a fisherman to retain 15 bluefish on the Atlantic coast, with no minimum size or season at all, is more “constricting” than Illinois rules that allow an angler to take home 3 northern pike of 24 inches or more, or 1 36-inch-plus muskellunge. Rules in the Gulf of Mexico that allow anglers to keep 15 foot-long Spanish mackerel per day seem a lot less “constricting” than Illinois rules that permit anglers to keep 6 14-inch walleye or 5 trout and salmon.
Yes, some salt water regulations, for a few species, are more restrictive than that, but then there are plenty of places in Illinois that have special regulations much more restrictive than the general rules, too.
But those are facts, and we’re talking about the Modern Fish Act, where facts are a threat to the con. That becomes particularly true when Dammerich makes a misleading statement that we hear, in various forms, time and time again in Modern Fish Act debates:
“…[T]he Modern Fish Act…would also protect fish populations by continuing the important conservation work started by the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976.”
Really? Just what “important conservation work” would that be?
To begin with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, as passed in 1976, did just about no “conservation work,” important or otherwise, at all. It pushed most foreign boats out of United States waters, but merely replaced foreign overfishing with overfishing by our domestic fleets, and provided financial incentives for the domestic fleet to build bigger, more modern vessels that only made it easier for them to catch too many fish.
The meaningful conservation work didn’t begin until after passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which required federal fishery managers to promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, and the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, which required that annual catch limits for almost all managed stocks and held fishermen accountable if those annual catch limits are exceeded.
Given that the text of the Modern Fish Act (more technically, the Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act) as originally introduced, clearly attempts to exempt recreational fishermen from the annual catch limits that prevent overfishing in many fisheries, and the associated accountability if they do overfish, and creates broad exceptions to the rebuilding requirements for overfished stocks, the notion that the Act would continue Magnuson-Stevens’ conservation work is more than a little hard to believe.
Then there are the true statements that appear in both Dammrich’s and Pfeiffer’s op-eds, which make anglers feel good about themselves but hide a deeper and darker reality.
Dammrich says that
“Casual anglers are careful to leave healthy fish populations because their favorite pastime depends on it—they want to enjoy their sport and understand the risk of overfishing.”
Pfeiffer echoes that sentiment when he says that
“Anglers have an inherent vested interest in making sure fish populations are healthy and capable of sustaining themselves year after year.”
Fair enough. I may agree that such statements, particularly Pfeiffer’s, are true.
But I also know that most salt water anglers don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether regulations give fish stocks adequate protection; they have faith that their regulators won’t allow overfishing and will prevent stocks from falling into decline. So when rules are ultimately issued, anglers feel that they're doing the right thing merely by obeying the law.
And there’s a big difference between “anglers” wanting healthy fisheries, and the sort of more liberal harvest rules that various members of the tackle and boatbuilding industry are seeking.
They're looking for rules that will let anglers kill more fish, and so hopefull generated more industry revenues. Pfeiffer admits that his goal is
“more demand for boats and marine accessories like those we manufacture and sell at Mercury Marine,”
which he believes would be generated by the Modern Fish Act’s changes to current law.
Nicole Vasilaros, who works for Dammrich at NMMA as a legislative specialist, appears in a video in which she says,
“Today’s system of fisheries management is outdated, and hampering access for our nation’s recreational anglers. People won’t purchase boats and equipment if they see no reason to get out on the water.”
Again, it's all about generating revenues.
So while anglers might very well worry about overfishing and maintaining sustainable fisheries, it seems that the folks writing op-eds and appearing in videos for the boatbuilding industry want to see a law that allows
“alternative [to catch limits] management for recreational fisheries,…smartly [that is, slowly] rebuilding fishery stocks, [and] establishing exemptions were annual catch limits don’t fit…”
in order to maximize recreational harvest and—at least in their hopeful eyes—maximize the amount of product that they sell.
As is the case in every con, you need to listen very closely to what the folks say, and not listen to what they want you to hear…
But the greatest Modern Fish Act con is that, the "Modern Fish Act" is what the folks who have been pushing the bill are actually trying to pass.
Last year, two bills were introduced in Congress, H.R. 2023 in the House and S. 1520 in the Senate. The House version was the worse of the two, although neither was much good and both threatened managers’ ability to manage fish stocks for sustainable abundance.
The Senate bill was reported out of committee, where a strong bipartisan effort stripped most of the bad language out of the bill, and put some good language in; what remains is somewhat spiteful and petulant, but won’t prevent federal fishery managers from doing their jobs.
As S. 1520 stands today, it’s largely harmless.
However the House bill, H.R. 2023, is effectively dead. It never made it through committee, and with just six months left in the legislative session, and elections in November,it’s almost certain that it never will.
Instead, the House is getting behind H.R. 200, a bill formally titled the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which did make it out of committee.
H.R. 200 is essentially a retread of bills that have been rattling around Congress with little effect since Magnuson-Stevens was reauthorized in 2006. H.R. 200 includes some language taken from the Modern Fish Act, but it also includes a lot of far worse (and yes, there is far worse) language that would create very broad exceptions to the fishery conservation and management requirements of Magnuson-Stevens, and threaten the sustainability of many fish stocks.
If the inoffensive S. 1520, which Modern Fish Act supporters can point to as a seemingly benign bill, is passed by the Senate, it will be sent to conference committee not with H.R. 2023, but with H.R. 200. The mating of those two bills would produce a chimera, a misbegotten hybrid that would likely include all of the worst aspects of the original Modern Fish Act, along with even worse provisions from H.R. 200, and do it while avoiding most of the public debate and bipartisan negotiations that would otherwise have taken place if the bill had to go through the normal lawmaking process.
That, then, is the ultimate goal of the Modern Fish Act con.
To sell anglers and Senators on the mild S. 1520, the only pure “Modern Fish Act” that has a chance to pass in either house, and then conference it with H.R. 200, in order to bring back all of the bad—and more—removed by the Senate’s bipartisan effort.
It’s a classic slight-of-hand, in which one hand distracts while the other hand steals.
But cons only work if you fall for the patter, and don’t watch what both hands are doing.
Once you know where the con man is heading, it’s easy to get out of his way. And once we do that, we have an obligation to reach out to others, expose the con for what it is, and run the con men out of town—or at least out of Congress.
For if they stay there, we all stand to lose.