Congress Shouldn’t Destabilize Our Fisheries

iStock_000014939237_MediumNext week, the House of Representatives will consider H.R. 1335, a bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  Fisheries issues often avoid the partisanship that otherwise rules (some would say cripples) Washington, but the Natural Resources Committee voted out H.R. 1335 strictly on party lines, and we expect the same outcome next week.  That’s a shame, not only because of the breakdown of bipartisanship, but also because this is a bad bill.

Many have written about how much U.S. fisheries management has improved over the last several years. A recent report from NOAA Fisheries confirms that overfishing numbers hit all-time low in 2014, and that 37 species around the country have rebuilt since 2000. EDF is proud to have worked side-by-side with the fishing industry as these gains have been made – not only because they’re delivering a healthier marine environment but also because they’re supporting more profitable fishing businesses and more prosperous coastal communities.  Unfortunately, H.R. 1335 would jeopardize this progress.  It would also put unnecessary restrictions on the decisions of the regional fishery management councils, long the bedrock of fishery management in the United States and a means for local fishermen and others to participate directly in the rulemaking process.

Weakening rebuilding and quota provisions:  Legal requirements to rebuild fisheries and prevent overfishing via quota management have played an essential part in bringing back fish like red snapper and summer flounder.  H.R. 1335 creates loopholes that would materially weaken these bedrock provisions, for example by waiving the quota requirement for vaguely-defined “ecosystem component” species or extending rebuilding timelines to avoid short-term economic hardship.  These and other exemptions would delay and in some cases eliminate the benefits to the environment and the economy that come from sustainable management of rebuilt fisheries.

Charter boats allow recreational fishermen who do not have their own boats to fish for iconic species such as this Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper. Photo Credit Gulf Wild™

Photo Credit Gulf Wild™

Limiting options for fishing industry participants:  EDF champions rights-based management, including catch shares, where fishermen chose to adopt them to maximize catch and income while protecting the environment.  H.R. 1335 would unnecessarily restrict this option by requiring a referendum on new catch share programs in certain areas, which could allow permit-holders who rarely fish to stymie the wishes of active fishermen.  The regional councils are capable of making these decisions for themselves; federal lawmakers should not prevent them from taking a reasonable range of actions.

Mandating revisiting allocations to different fishing sectors:  H.R. 1335 also unnecessarily dictates to regional councils by compelling the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils to revisit within two years all of the allocations between commercial and recreational fishermen in their regions.  All fishery management councils can and do periodically revisit this contentious issue.  Compelling these two councils to do so will divert resources from other important work and potentially exacerbate tensions between sectors.

Weakening red snapper science and management:  The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission plays a valuable role in the region, but it does not have the capacity to undertake red snapper stock assessments, as H.R. 1335 would direct it to.  Further, extending Gulf state waters boundaries for the purposes of red snapper management would disadvantage charter/for-hire vessels that are pursuing innovative ways to allow more anglers to access red snapper.

Restricting data from the public:  Publicly available data is crucial to informed participation in the regional council process.  Yet H.R. 1335 would further restrict the public’s access to fisheries information, although this data is often collected at taxpayer expense.

Undercutting other environmental laws:  H.R. 1335 would make the MSA govern where the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Antiquities Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act would usually apply.  These statutes serve important, independent purposes and should not be undercut.

H.R. 1335 has strengths, including encouraging greater incorporation of data collected by non-governmental sources and focusing on assessing the condition of understudied fish populations.  But on balance, if it were enacted fisheries in the United States would be worse off than under existing law.  As a result, we hope Representatives will vote no on this problematic piece of legislation.

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