The Empty Oceans Act—House Offers Draft Bill to Gut Protections for Fisheries and Fishing Economies

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If destroying livelihoods and depleting fish populations around the country is the goal, then I’ve got a proposal for you. The draft bill recently proposed by House Natural Resources Chair Representative Doc Hastings is a virtual roadmap to reversing all of the success we’ve had in rebuilding depleted ocean fisheries around the country and turning back the clock to the era of boom and bust fisheries management.  

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 proved strikingly successful. In the early 1990s, many important fish stocks, such as the iconic New England cod, suffered large declines or collapses. Today, while challenges remain, many of these 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.

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Given these benefits to coastal communities, fishermen, and ecosystems, Representative Hastings' interest in dismantling the law that made it possible is very puzzling. The Hastings draft would take us back to a time before the success of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and to when fish populations—and the fishermen that depended on them—were in dire straits. This proposal adds loopholes, waters down legal standards, encourages costly delays, and reduces transparency and accountability. The draft guts the rebuilding requirements that forced managers to make tough decisions that allowed our stocks to rebound, including by removing requirements for rebuilding timelines. This was doubtlessly done in the name of “flexibility.” But the current law already has sufficient 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 certain exceptions and 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.

The theme of this draft bill is definitely flexibility: the flexibility to fish until there is nothing left. The proposal lowers the standard for what constitutes a healthy or rebuilt fish population. It limits the authority of scientists to set science-based annual catch limits, a requirement that Congress added to the law in 2006. The proposal allows even the most depleted fish populations to continue to be subject to overfishing for as long as another seven years. It exempts “non-target, incidentally harvested stocks of fish” from annual catch limits and accountability measures, which means much less accountability for the catch of hundreds of stocks that aren’t “targeted” by fishermen but are caught anyway.

As if these attacks on modern-era fisheries management weren’t enough, the draft bill also goes after open and transparent government. The proposal would make a wide range of information secret and unavailable to the public, including the results of cooperative research funded by taxpayer dollars and data collected by government-funded biologists used to inform how we manage fish populations. The proposal exempts many types of fishery information from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, undermining our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government. This bill even denies states and federal agencies (outside the National Marine Fisheries Service) access to any data that would be used to make better decisions about where to locate new ocean industry, such as offshore wind, in order to minimize impacts to the environment and existing uses, like fishing.

Finally, Representative Hastings’ proposal attacks vital 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). Compliance with NEPA is eliminated entirely, which will allow fisheries managers to act without adequately analyzing effects on the marine environment, without considering alternatives or ways to minimize impacts, and to further limit stakeholder and public involvement. The Hastings draft bill would undermine 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.

After years of sacrifice by fishermen to rebuild our fisheries and with the U.S. now the model for fisheries management around the world, Representative Hastings has proposed that we turn back the clock. What a mistake that would be.