Author Archives: Matt Tinning

Congress Take Note: New Reports Show Progress for US Fisheries

status_determination_listings_2013_status_of_stocksThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last week released two reports pointing to continued improvements in US fish stocks. Taken together, they send a clear message: that fisheries nationally are turning the corner as sustainable and more innovative management approaches take hold. Congress should take note.

The first report, the so-called Status of Stocks report to Congress  revealed that seven stocks were removed from the overfishing list last year and four from the overfished list. Two more stocks were declared “rebuilt,” bringing the total number of rebuilt stocks to 34 since 2000. Twenty-eight species are still on the report’s overfishing list, reminding us that there is still work to be done. But after decades of mismanagement that depleted fisheries and hurt coastal communities, the positive momentum of recent years is unmistakable.

The second report released concurrently by the agency, Fisheries Economics of the US 2012, underscored the critical role that healthy fisheries play in our nation’s economy. According to the report, U.S. commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generated more than $199 billion in sales in 2012, a gain of 7% over the previous year. It also found that the economic impact of fishing jobs increased 3% from 2011 to 2012. Such year-on-year growth is to be welcomed.

2012_feus_jobsThe news in U.S. fisheries is not universally positive. A number of fish populations remain in serious trouble, and there are individual fishermen in some regions who face enormous financial hardship through no fault of their own. We should not lose sight of that. But we also shouldn’t allow that to obscure the clear trend towards more vibrant fisheries that we’ve seen in recent years.

 

Let’s hope that Congress is taking clear note of what these reports say as it tackles three important issues in the coming weeks:

  • Appropriations: The House and Senate are currently moving through committee the bill that will fund the National Marine Fisheries Service in fiscal year 2015.  It is crucial that we continue to invest in the management of our nation’s fisheries to ensure their continued recovery and long-term success. Just as we invest in roads and bridges on land, the information infrastructure of fisheries is what allows the economy around them to thrive. As Congress struggles with tight budgets, it must do more to give the National Marine Fisheries Service the financial resources it needs to succeed.
  • Anti-Fisheries Rider: In what has become an unfortunate annual tradition, Congressman Steve Southerland of Florida seems set to make another attempt to usurp the authority of local fishery managers by taking an important fishery management tool called catch shares out of their toolbox. Improved management in a number of fisheries through the adoption of catch shares is a critical ingredient in the successes that last week’s reports details. By aligning the economic and conservation interests of participants in these fisheries, catch shares have allowed fishermen the freedom to fish when it makes sense for them, given them a tangible stake in the long-term health of the fishery, and enabled more robust enforcement of science-based catch limits. According to NOAA’s economic report,

“[c]atch share programs are helping to improve economic efficiency and encourage more sustainable fishing practices. They are also designed to produce more fish at lower costs, improve fishermen’s safety and profits, and strengthen the biological and economic benefits in a fishery.”

Members of Congress should think hard before supporting Rep. Southerland’s short-sited and parochial amendment when it comes to the floor.

  • MSA Reauthorization: Both the House Natural Resources and Senate Commerce Committees have started circulating discussion drafts of legislation that would reauthorize the nation’s premier federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA. It’s commendable that congressional leaders are reviewing how the law is working and whether improvements may be possible. But some ideas for reform would turn back the clock, ignoring the progress that’s been made since the law was last strengthened through reauthorization in 2007. As lawmakers in the House and Senate move towards consideration of reauthorization drafts, they would be well served to take a cautious approach, and recognize that their first obligation given current progress is to do no harm.

Last week’s reports are another reminder of just how important the fishing industry is to our economy.  We are encouraged that smart management is continuing to yield positive results for both fish stocks and fishermen. Through its past leadership, Congress deserves to share in the credit for this progress. It should build on that success to ensure it continues in the years ahead.

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Let’s not turn back the clock on U.S. fisheries

G.W. Bush signing MSA Re-authorization 2006

President George W. Bush signs the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, joined by a bi-partisan group of lawmakers.
Photo Credit: AP, from talkingfish.org

Fisheries management can be a contentious business. So it’s all the more striking that the business of legislating on federal fisheries has historically been a relatively cordial affair. The gains of the last two decades have been possible because of strong cooperation across the aisle. In 1996 the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) prioritized conservation in federal fisheries management for the first time. Alaska’s Republican Congressman Don Young jokes that the Magnuson-Stevens Act could have been called the Young-Studds Act because of his close collaboration on the SFA with Gerry Studds, then a Democrat from Massachusetts. It passed both chambers by overwhelming margins and was signed into law by President Clinton. Ten years later, the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act strengthened conservation mandates in response to continued overfishing and the failure to rebuild overfished species. It was championed in the Senate by Republican Ted Stevens in close cooperation with his Democratic counterpart Daniel Inouye. It cleared the Senate by unanimous consent, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

With Congress once again considering reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), there’s a welcome bipartisan consensus that the law is working. Senior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are talking about building on our recent successes and exploring minor tweaks to the law rather than pursuing any kind of far-reaching rewrite. Despite serious ongoing challenges in specific fisheries, the legal framework created by Congress is clearly succeeding. Science-based annual catch limits are ending overfishing; and statutory rebuilding timelines have driven the recovery of more than 30 previously depleted stocks. This is great news for the health of the ocean. It’s even better news for seafood lovers, saltwater anglers, and coastal small businesses—the most important long-term beneficiaries of fishery management success.

In this context, a reauthorization discussion draft that has been circulated by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings is all the more befuddling. Chairman Hastings voted for the 2006 reauthorization and celebrates its success. At a committee hearing convened to consider the discussion draft earlier this month he was emphatic: “In the [previous] hearings we’ve held there was general agreement that the Act is working,” the Chairman said in his opening statement. “I have said all along that the Act is fundamentally sound.” Yet as EDF outlines in a comment letter submitted to the committee today, the substance of the Chairman’s discussion draft is deeply discordant with his affirming rhetoric. His overhaul of the law would do more than merely “shift the balance” of fishery management in modest and benign ways. On the contrary, if enacted in its current form we fear it would set us on a path back to the failed management practices of the past.

Take overfishing. This scourge devastated many coastal communities in previous decades, costing countless jobs and forfeiting untold billions in lost economic output. During this month’s hearing, Chairman Hastings was careful to assert that his draft does not eliminate requirements to prevent overfishing, and in a narrow sense that’s true. Yet those provisions failed to prevent widespread overfishing until legislators added requirements for enforceable science-based quotas, which the discussion draft would undercut. It doesn’t take a fisheries scientist to see that rolling back those specific mandates will wind back the clock. Indeed, the discussion draft explicitly allows overfishing to continue after a population is declared overfished. And it permits catch limits set at the overfishing limit, inviting management on the knife’s edge.

Or take rebuilding. NOAA estimates that renewing depleted fish stocks will ultimately result in $31 billion in additional sales impacts, supporting 500,000 jobs and increasing dockside revenues by more than 50 percent. During this month’s hearing Chairman Hastings was quick to argue that his discussion draft does not eliminate the requirement that fisheries be rebuilt. But that assertion obscures the real story. As the testimony of NOAA Fisheries Deputy Assistant Administrator Sam Rauch made clear, managers struggled to rebuild depleted fisheries until the MSA imposed a statutory timeline, which has been the impetus necessary to do the hard work of rebuilding our nation’s fisheries.  To do away with any meaningful rebuilding timeline, as the discussion draft proposes, would be a highly retrograde step.

At the same time, the draft threatens to stymie needed improvements. It could place obstacles in the way of wider use of electronic monitoring, which many see as the next step in reducing costs and improving data collection. It would limit the flexibility of many Councils to adopt new catch share programs—and it defines the term so broadly that it would include shifts in allocation. It would also expand state waters for the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico—but only for red snapper management, creating a confusing and unwieldy patchwork of regulations.

To be sure, challenges remain in federal fisheries. The scientific basis for establishing quotas and other management actions can and should be improved. Twenty-first century tools must be employed to assess species, and data from fishermen, academia, and other non-governmental sources must be integrated more effectively where possible.  Costs of modern management threaten small boat operators in some areas. Conserving the ecosystem on which fisheries depend, rather than focusing on each species in a vacuum, could make our marine resources more resilient.

But addressing these challenges does not require rewriting the central provisions of the MSA.  Improved implementation can address many of them, along with narrow revisions to the statute where the need has been shown to exist.  EDF joined a diverse group of fishermen, other industry leaders, and academics in submitting a letter to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calling for more and better cooperative management of fishery resources.  Congressman Wittman recently introduced H.R. 3063, which would make the stock assessment process more transparent and accessible to non-governmental participants without sacrificing conservation requirements.

The discussion draft, on the other hand, would make sweeping, disruptive and problematic changes to the MSA.  The good news is that there’s still plenty of time for Congress to get reauthorization right. With the Senate moving closer to the release of its own discussion draft, there’s reason to hope that Chairman Mark Begich and Ranking Member Marco Rubio will forge a bipartisan approach that can emulate the traditions of their Senate predecessors. And with leaders in industry, government and academia all lining up to express concerns about the House discussion draft, there’s still the possibility that Chairman Hastings will consider wholesale changes to his reauthorization bill before it’s introduced. For the sake of fishermen, coastal communities and seafood lovers everywhere, we urge the Chairman to do just that.

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Lawsuits and lasting solutions for the Gulf’s red snapper fishery

For media inquiries please contact:

Matt Smelser, msmelser@edf.org, (512) 731-3023

EDF takes another step today in our decades-long pursuit of vibrant, productive fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico when we file an amicus brief in an ongoing lawsuit over the red snapper fishery. The issue at hand is whether NOAA violated federal law in its management of the recreational sector, allowing significant overharvesting and in so doing potentially jeopardizing one of the nation’s biggest success stories in fisheries recovery. It’s always unfortunate when fisheries challenges end up in the courtroom. In this instance, we hope that there’ll be a simultaneous uptake of tangible solutions that can improve recreational fishing opportunity while ensuring continued growth and recovery of the red snapper population. The good news is that Gulf fishermen, just as they have in the past, are coming forward with creative management ideas that we need for long-term success. We should build on that to forge greater cooperation and ensure everyone can share in the benefits of a thriving red snapper fishery.

In many ways the story of Gulf red snapper in recent years is one of remarkable accomplishment. Bold leadership from fishermen—and decisive action by the Gulf Fishery Management Council—put the depleted red snapper fishery on the path to recovery. Failed commercial fishery management was fixed with a catch share program that imposed individual accountability, reduced waste, and helped end chronic overfishing. This new system has yielded remarkable dividends, allowing the safe catch for both the recreational and commercial sectors to more than double since 2008. This increase has helped reinvigorate coastal seafood businesses and brought more fresh local seafood to dinner tables across the Gulf and beyond. EDF is proud to have contributed to this success.

But there’s still a fundamental problem: profound failure in recreational management is denying anglers the benefits they should be enjoying, while threatening to turn back the clock on sustainability. Although the recreational allocation has remained constant at 49 percent of the fishery, the growing Gulf red snapper “pie” is not leading to enhanced recreational fishing opportunities. On the contrary, both individual anglers and charter boat captains face growing frustration. Catch is still controlled by season and bag limits (in addition to size limits), which have shrunk dramatically. The 2013 recreational season was just 42 days.

2013 recreational landings landings based on preliminary data

Note: 2013 recreational landings are projected

This same failed recreational management system threatens to undermine recovery of the red snapper population. Through no fault of Gulf anglers who play by the rules, red snapper have been overharvested in the recreational fishery in six of the last seven years, often by significant margins. Preliminary data suggests that in 2013 recreational catch exceeded its quota by close to 100 percent. Recovery of red snapper is too fragile to tolerate a system that routinely breaches science-based limits. A new benchmark assessment released last year showed that while we’ve made progress, red snapper are still overfished and we’ve had weaker than usual recruitment in recent years. It is clear that failed recreational management is not only limiting recreational opportunities, it could endanger the long-term health of the fishery.

We call for fresh thinking about how management in the recreational red snapper fishery can be improved. That thinking can help move us towards a recreational fishery with both year-round fishing opportunities for Gulf anglers and long-term sustainability. Decision-makers must consider new management solutions, reduce tensions and foster greater collaboration among fishing sectors.

The good news is that fishermen are generating new ideas. Recreational participants have asked for solutions that will allow seasons to be longer and more flexible.

In the charter boat sector, many believe that the successful commercial management program could offer charter captains a model for how to lengthen their seasons and increase revenues. Meanwhile, Gulf anglers have previously proposed a tagging program similar to those used for hunting large game. Tags could be managed at the state or local level, by state wildlife agencies or local fishing clubs.

Rather than let this litigation drag on, the Gulf Fishery Management Council should use its meeting next month to urgently consider such new management approaches. And instead of digging in on opposing sides, stakeholders should come together to forge lasting solutions. We will be offering more ideas on such approaches in the months ahead. We all have a shared interest in a healthy Gulf and vibrant red snapper fishery. Bold and creative reform can offer win-win solutions that enhance recreational opportunities while conserving red snapper—for today’s anglers and for generations to come.

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