There's a little something for everyone to hate in the House's proposed renewal of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Commercial fishermen feel it gives too much to recreational fishermen and environmentalists. Recreational fishermen say it goes too easy on their commercial counterparts, and the environmental lobby says the measure, which passed the House last week along largely partisan lines, will undo years of progress in restoring fish stocks.
We are left with what we have had for decades — a pitched battle among competing interests, with no end in sight. Congress must do better to help guarantee that the science behind management decisions is sound and easily understandable.
The act has been controversial since it went into effect in 1976, as the crisis in the nation's fishing industry reached its peak. The measure established a 200-mile fishing limit off the American coastline, banned foreign factory trawlers and set up regional councils to oversee the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks. The law was modified and reauthorized in 1986, 1996 and 2006.
The most recent attempt to update the law would give the regional councils more flexibility in managing fish stocks, and not tie conservation plans so closely to stock surveys and other research carried out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, touted the change as giving councils "the proper tools and flexibility needed to effectively manage their fisheries." In a nod to commercial fishermen, he added, “It will support a more robust domestic seafood industry and great job creation across the country. This legislation allows ... more transparency for fishermen and science and management, and a requirement for NOAA to provide better accountability for how fees are collected and used.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear loosening the tie between management decisions and research will lead to a return to the pre-1976 "anything goes" era.
Oceana said the bill “would turn the clock backwards on fisheries management” and stymie progress in restoring fish populations.
“The Magnuson-Stevens Act has succeeded in reversing overfishing and bringing back fisheries abundance in the U.S.,” Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber said. “However, (the House bill) would undo significant progress we’ve made over the past several decades for the health of America’s fisheries and fishermen.”
Webber also said the bill will “weaken science-based conservation of U.S. fish populations, decrease accountability and increase the risk of overfishing by removing annual catch limits for many species.”
Congressman Seth Moulton of Salem, meanwhile, voted against the reauthorization, saying it doesn't do enough to make sure the federal government and regional councils are making their decisions based on actual data instead of anecdotes and gut instinct.
“Over the past three years and through numerous conversations with fishermen, scientists and environmental groups, one thing has been made abundantly clear: We need to improve the science behind our federal stock assessments,” Moulton said last week. “The reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens undermines our efforts. We need everyone on the same page. We all want sustainable fisheries for today and future generations, and we shouldn’t have to pit one group of fishermen against another to achieve that.”
Moulton has pushed for NOAA to invest more of the money it takes in from asset forfeiture and other seizures into bolstering fisheries research. That's a good start.
Commercial fishermen are often accused of being anti-science, but their skepticism is well-founded, given the federal government's spotty track record when it comes to high-stakes fisheries research. Many still point to the "Trawlergate" scandal of the early 2000s, when researchers were using fishing nets with absurdly large holes, and then reporting they could catch no fish. It would have been comical if not for the fact that lasting decisions about the rights of local fishermen to go to sea were made using that faulty data.
The reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act gives Congress a once-in-a-decade chance to help build trust between the fishing industry, regulators and environmentalists. Here's hoping lawmakers act appropriately.