Another Effort to Gut Protections for Fisheries and Fishing Economies is Introduced in the House

About a year ago now retired Congressman Doc Hastings introduced a bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). That legislation would have effectively reversed much of the success we've had in rebuilding depleted ocean fisheries around the country. It turned back the clock to the era of boom and bust fisheries management that put both fish and livelihoods in jeopardy in the first place. Fortunately, the Hastings bill never made it to the House floor. But last week Congressman Don Young of Alaska took up the anti-fishing banner and introduced as H.R. 1335 what is essentially the same bill, once again threatening to put economically critical fisheries in peril. As the Hastings bill did, H.R. 1335 also proposes to roll back several other environmental laws as well.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act governs how we conserve and use our nation's fisheries. This bill was amended in 1996 and 2006 with strong bipartisan support to include provisions to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations. The late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was a leader of these reforms, working to ensure a legacy of healthy U.S. fisheries and fishing economies.

Senator Stevens' legacy has proved quite successful. In the early 1990s, many important fish stocks had suffered large declines or collapses. Today, while challenges remain (such as the still-depleted New England cod populations), many once overfished stocks have been brought back. NRDC's "Bringing Back the Fish" report documented how nearly two-thirds of fish stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 have either rebuilt to healthy population levels, or have made significant rebuilding progress, resulting in increased gross commercial revenues of $585 million--92% higher (54% when adjusted for inflation) than before the rebuilding plans.

Since the MSA has produced real benefits to coastal communities, fishermen, and ecosystems, Congressman Young's efforts to dismantle the law is confusing. Young's bill adds loopholes to the law, waters down legal standards, encourages costly delays, and reduces transparency and accountability. Particularly worrisome, the legislation guts the rebuilding requirements that forced fishery managers to make tough decisions that allowed our stocks to rebound, including by removing requirements for rebuilding timelines. This is being done to provide "flexibility," Congressman Young says, as Hastings did before him. But the rebuilding provisions in the current law already have a huge amount of flexibility: although there is a general requirement for a 10-year rebuilding time period (scientists have demonstrated that most stocks can be rebuilt in this time period), the Magnuson-Stevens Act also provides exceptions to timelines and additional time for rebuilding plan development. In fact, with flexibility under the current law, the average time period in rebuilding plans to date has been 19.6 years.

H.R. 1335 would remove the Magnuson-Stevens Act's requirement for annual catch limits for potentially hundreds of species. This would apply even to species that may be overfished or subject to overfishing. The bill would also put a significant amount of publicly-funded fisheries information off limits to fishery managers, scientists, industry and the public.

In addition to dismantling fishery protections around the nations, H.R.1335 attacks critical bedrock environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Antiquities Act (by which national monuments are created). The bill provides for fishery management plans to be exempted from the requirements of NEPA, an important federal planning tool that requires public engagement in management decisions, adequate analysis of environmental impacts on the marine environment, and the consideration of reasonable alternatives and ways of minimizing adverse impacts. H.R. 1335 undermines the ESA by putting the industry-dominated fishery management councils in charge of recovering endangered marine mammals, sea turtles, and other vulnerable marine animals. The councils would also be put in charge of fisheries-related activities in national marine sanctuaries and national monuments. These councils have neither the capacity nor knowledge to enforce these critical protections. They would essentially be ignored, while species become more imperiled.

Fishermen have invested years of sacrifice and work under the MSA to rebuild our nation's fisheries and ensure that they remain sustainable. And that work has made the U.S a model for fisheries management around the world. This bill takes us back to a time when fishing boats came back empty and ecosystems were ravaged. Don't our fishermen and all Americans that enjoy the bounty of the oceans deserve better?


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