Another “Empty Oceans Act" Rammed Through House Committee

Republican Bill Threatens to Derail the Future of Sustainable U.S. Fisheries Management 

America’s ocean fisheries are some of the best managed in the world. No question about it. And as Congress has worked to reauthorize the law that governs fishing in our federal waters, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the discourse with stakeholders at Congressional hearings has made one thing abundantly clear: our success to date is owed to the MSA’s robust management framework, which requires fishery managers to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks using science-based tools.

That’s why it is so confounding that House Republicans for the last several years have been bent on derailing it. And it happened again today in the House Natural Resources Committee. In a highly contentious, party-line vote, H.R. 200, Congressman Don Young’s bill to reauthorize the MSA, passed out of Committee. With this vote, the House stands poised to move forward with its effort to weaken our federal fisheries law in the name of injecting so-called flexibility into the fishery management process. Making matters worse, they’ve included a suite of even broader attacks on our oceans in the bill that would make it much harder to protect special ocean places, like marine national monuments and marine sanctuaries, and imperiled ocean wildlife, like whales, sea turtles, and sea birds.

Valdez, Alaska.

Photo Credit: NOAA Sea Grant

As I’ve discussed in other posts, the MSA enjoys a proud history of bipartisanship. Through previous reauthorizations of the law in 1996 and 2006, Congress has consistently moved the ball forward on sustainable fisheries management, working to reverse the historic plight of overfishing with broad support on both sides of the aisle. While Congressman Young indicated earlier this year that he was willing to work in a cooperative fashion to reach bipartisan consensus on ways to improve fisheries management, this didn’t happen. Or at least his bill doesn’t reflect that promise. Rather, the version of H.R. 200 that just passed out of Committee is an attack on science-based fisheries management, will increase the risk of overfishing, and will delay the rebuilding of overfished fisheries to the detriment of coastal communities.

Make no mistake—H.R. 200 is still the “Empty Oceans Act.” It is substantially unchanged from the two previous iterations of this legislation, particularly in how it goes about undermining the core conservation requirements of the law. 

Here are the top three ways that H.R. 200 weakens fisheries management under the guise of “flexibility” for certain fisheries and sectors:

1. It renders the MSA’s rebuilding requirement effectively meaningless.

One of the law’s most important provisions—indeed, the conservation requirement that has likely had the most success to date—is the requirement added to the law in 1996 that fishery managers protect overfished stocks with rebuilding plans, which must ensure stocks are rebuilt in as short a time as possible, not to exceed 10 years, with certain exceptions. Thanks to this requirement, we have successfully rebuilt 43 once-depleted fish stocks since 2000. But the Empty Oceans Act would eviscerate this safeguard by weakening both the “as short as possible” and 10-year requirements, and—to top it off—provide so many additional deadline exceptions that many depleted fisheries would get no rebuilding timeframe at all. History has shown that fishery managers must tackle rebuilding aggressively in order to succeed, and without strong and clear guideposts and accountability, managers will allow depleted stocks to languish at low population levels for long periods, putting their eventual recovery at greater risk.

2.  It riddles the annual catch limit requirement with loopholes.

Annual catch limits (ACLs) are a cornerstone of effective, science-based fisheries management. The ACL requirement is widely credited for helping to end overfishing in many fisheries. Overfishing would increase if H.R. 200, which eliminates or weakens the application of ACLs to hundreds of stocks and provides for “alternative management” in recreational fisheries, became law. The latter loophole is an attempt to reduce accountability in recreational fisheries and, if it became law, fishery managers would likely try to use it to forgo science-based ACLs in any number of recreational fisheries. In some fisheries, recreational fishing accounts for a large portion of total catch, and without limits, angling effort can and has resulted in overfishing. ACLs and the overarching accountability framework they provide are critical to ensuring everyone can fish for generations to come.

3.  It undermines bedrock environmental law.

H.R. 200 doesn’t limit itself to the bounds of fisheries law. It would also allow fishery managers to override critical ocean ecosystem, marine habitat, and species protections created by other bedrock environmental laws—the Antiquities Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The MSA is a fisheries statute, intended to produce optimum yield, and is not intended to protect biological hotspots or ecological diversity. Just as it does not make sense to put fishery management councils in charge of protecting our marine national monuments and marine sanctuaries—our "blue parks"—it also does not make sense to put these councils in charge of recovering the nation’s endangered and threatened ocean wildlife. The bill would also undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a time-tested framework that is critical for understanding and managing the impacts of fishery management decisions on the marine environment.

In another strike against fisheries sustainability and ocean health, the Committee today also passed the RED SNAPPER Act, H.R. 3588, in a similarly partisan fashion. This is a controversial bill that would transfer management of the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico to the states and exempt their management from the MSA's core conservation requirements. Given recent decisions within the Administration to allow relaxed management of this important but vulnerable fishery and delay its rebuilding, H.R. 3588’s removal of legal safeguards for red snapper is cause for real concern.

As industry leaders and other stakeholders made clear at recent hearings, we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. Despite demonstrable successes under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, there remains much work to be done. As of 2017, over three dozen federally managed fish populations remain at unhealthy levels.  Systemic problems remain, such as bycatch (i.e., unintended catch), destructive fishing practices that damage marine habitat, and loopholes that leave important fish species poorly managed or unmanaged. Now is the time to build on our progress toward healthy fisheries, rather than weaken the federal management system that has allowed so many U.S. fisheries to recover.

Boccaccio rockfish. This Pacific fish stock was declared successfully rebuilt under Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements earlier this year.

Image Credit: NOAA

Echoing these points, nearly 1,000 scientists, fishermen, other stakeholders have raised their voices to urge Congress not to enact H.R. 200 or other bills that would weaken federal fisheries management. Our marine economy succeeds in large part thanks to the sustainable management of our nation’s fisheries. Indeed, business leaders, and chefs and restauranteurs that rely on sustainable seafood, have been among the strongest voices defending the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Empty Oceans Act is a let-down for them, as well as for the millions of Americans who care about healthy oceans, resilience to climate change, and protecting vulnerable marine species. 

As the reauthorization process moves forward in Congress, we look forward continuing to work toward sustainable fisheries and finding constructive solutions to remaining challenges. H.R. 200 goes wide of the mark—which is putting it charitably—but the fight for healthy fisheries and vibrant ocean ecosystems is alive and well.  

About the Authors

Molly Masterton

Project Attorney, Fisheries and U.S. Atlantic, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.