Energy & Environment

House bill severely undercuts nation’s progress in fisheries management

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The United States’ status as a global leader in preventing overfishing and in rebuilding depleted populations of ocean fish is in jeopardy from an unexpected source: the U.S. House of Representatives.

Last month, the House passed H.R. 1335 to reauthorize and amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law that governs management of U.S. ocean fish. The law was originally enacted in 1976 and was most recently reauthorized in 1996 and 2006, passing with overwhelming bipartisan support following reasonable compromises made in the long–term interests of U.S. fishermen and the health of fish populations.

But this bill is different.

Crafted and passed without that historic bipartisanship, the bill significantly weakens the Magnuson-Stevens Act. If enacted, it would immediately jeopardize ongoing efforts to rebuild vulnerable fish populations.

{mosads}This legislation comes at a time when the U.S. marine environment faces a variety of significant threats, including habitat destruction, pollution and changing conditions such as warming ocean temperatures. These pressures harm fish and wildlife populations and they weaken the economy of coastal communities and affect the fishermen who reside in them. Rather than include measures and resources to help fishery managers confront these challenges, the bill undermines key conservation requirements currently in place.

The proposed legislation would enable fishery managers to avoid setting reasonable timelines to rebuild depleted populations. The new exceptions would include situations in which a stock is affected by “unusual events” — a potential open-ended excuse to dodge proven, science-based timelines for helping to restore depleted fish populations.

H.R. 1335 would allow fishery managers to expand the use of emergency regulations to extend overfishing of vulnerable populations, even those that are in desperate need of rebuilding, such as Atlantic halibut.

In addition, the legislation would allow managers to exempt many species from current science-based catch limits that are helping to end and prevent overfishing while finally improving accountability in our fishery management system. It would also needlessly complicate management of red snapper and other fish in the Gulf of Mexico by extending state jurisdiction from three to nine nautical miles off the shoreline of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for recreational — but not commercial — red snapper fishing.

Individually, these provisions threaten the future of U.S. marine fisheries and the communities that rely on their abundance. Taken together, they represent an alarming setback after decades of careful, science-based stewardship of a public resource stemming from the last two reauthorizations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The Senate has the next move on the legislation, and we urge senators to take a deliberative, bipartisan approach that is more in line with the traditional way Congress has handled the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Since 2000, the act has enabled the United States to rebuild 37 depleted fish populations and lower the number subject to overfishing by nearly two-thirds, improving ocean ecosystems and strengthening our ocean economy. Indeed, since Magnuson-Stevens was last reauthorized in 2006 — with strong support from Congress and the administration of George W. Bush — U.S. commercial fishing revenue has increased 43 percent.

Yet there is also clear evidence that we still have work to do. Last summer, scientists reported that cod populations in the New England region had crashed to historic lows, and on June 16 of this year, New England’s fishery management council voted, counterintuitively, to remove protections for more than 5,400 square miles of ocean bottom — an area the size of Connecticut — that contain ocean habitat essential for cod and other fish in the region.

If and when the Senate acts on the proposed Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, it should continue 40 years of bipartisan collaboration on federal fisheries policy while modernizing the law. That means shaping policy to ensure that management decisions better incorporate existing data on where fish live and the impacts of pollution and other threats, including overfishing and changing ocean conditions. Incorporating these pillars of big-picture fisheries management can give managers more tools to tackle persistent and new challenges.

Over the past 20 years, remarkable progress has been made in the management of U.S. ocean fisheries. Now is not the time to return to policies that leave us barely treading water.

Reichert is an executive vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts and directs its environmental work.

Tags Fisheries Fisheries management Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act Overfishing Seafood
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