Monday, July 16, 2018

Catch limits the sticking point in controversial fishing bill

Surrounded by ice, commercial fishing boats are docked in their slips in Lake Montauk in Montauk, N.Y. earlier this year. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Surrounded by ice, commercial fishing boats are docked in their slips in Lake Montauk in Montauk, N.Y. earlier this year. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Recreational fishermen are applauding and environmental are decrying a proposed overhaul to a 1976 fishing law credited with regrowing fish populations off the nation’s coasts.

Dino Grandoni reports for the Washington Post:

Largely along a party-line vote, the House greenlit the measure seeking to amend what is known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act late last week.  Under the current law, regional councils delineate seasons and set catch limits for fishermen — all so fish stocks can be sustained from year to year.

The House bill seeks to cede more control to these local groups in developing recovery plans when populations dip too low. 

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who sponsored both this recent bill and the original 1976 law, said the update ensures “a proper balance between the biological needs of fish stocks and the economic needs of fishermen.”

For example, when a species is deemed “overfished,” current law requires the regional councils to develop a plan to rebuild the population that often involves placing new short-term and, at times, financially painful catch limits on fishermen. The law requires the plans to try to resuscitate the fishery as quickly as possible — in 10 years or fewer.

Critics of the current system say that time requirement is too unyielding. Instead, the House bill gives councils, which are part of the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the discretion to base the time frame on “the biology of the stock of fish.”

But many conservation groups and House Democrats said Young’s bill would gut the very fisheries law he helped author four decades ago which they say has proven successful at stymieing the once rampant overfishing of some fish populations.

“The bottom line with this Magnuson reauthorization is this: The law is working as intended,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources subcommittee on oceans, said on the floor. “Reauthorization is important but it shouldn't come at the expense of the law's core provisions that have made it so successful.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Act was amended and reauthorized in 1996 and then again 10 years later, each time largely with bipartisan support. “What’s atypical is how partisan this has become,” said Meredith Moore, director of the fish conservation program at the Ocean Conservancy.

Speaking on the House floor, Young acknowledged how bitterly divided the chamber was over re-upping a relatively low-profile fisheries law.

“I know some of my colleagues will say I didn’t do enough to ensure the act retains a strong bipartisan nature,” Young said.

The longest-serving member of the House then recalled that his original bill passed committee in the 1970s with scant Democratic support.

In addition to dividing Democrats and Republicans, the legislation also reveals a divide between commercial and recreational fishermen.

The bill was commended by some regional seafood industry groups, who in a letter organized by the National Coalition for Fishing Communities last month lauded the bill for creating “flexibility without compromising conservation.” The bill is backed by many boating and sportsmen groups, too.

But business support is not universal. Some representatives of commercial fishers, including the Seafood Harvesters of America, oppose the legislation for holding hobbyist anglers to looser standards when compared to professional fishermen.

“Very simply,” said Christopher Brown, the organization’s president, “it erodes what has been working.”

As with so many pieces of legislation passed by the GOP-dominated House, the bill will have a tough time becoming law in its current form. Fifteen House Republicans voted against the measure. Republicans, who hold the Senate by a narrow 51-to-49 majority, have even fewer votes to spare there in the upper chamber.


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