Bush Proposal Weakens Ocean Protections, Shuts Out Stakeholders

WASHINGTON (September 19, 2005) -- Comprehensive new fisheries legislation released today by the Bush administration defies key recommendations by the Bush-appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy that were intended to preserve and maintain viable, healthy fish stocks in seas around the world, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The proposal, which the White House sent to Congress this morning, also weakens existing conservation standards.

The proposed legislation is the administration's opening salvo in the fight to overhaul the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs the nation's fisheries management. The Senate Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee are also working on reauthorization, which last happened in 1996.

A chief concern is that the White House bill would allow overfishing to continue on already depleted fish populations. It also would greatly delay rebuilding depleted fish populations, increasing the likelihood that certain commercial species will never recover.

"There is overwhelming consensus that the world's oceans are in a state of collapse. Yet the White House is rejecting the recommendations of its own non-partisan experts," said Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC's Water and Coastal Program. "By failing to take even basic steps to improve the health of decimated fish stocks, the administration is risking the recovery of key species and threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities."

NRDC's analysis of the administration's bill follows:

The bill substantially weakens current federal requirements that fisheries be rebuilt and managed in a sustainable way. The administration's language revokes the current requirement to rebuild an overfished species within ten years, delaying by many years the recovery of overfished species.

The bill also allows overfishing on a given species to continue for years before legal protections kick in. The two year time-frame included in the bill is misleading, since that two year clock would not start until the plan, amendment, or regulations had been adopted -- a process that can take several years on its own.

Measures to end overfishing and rebuild a fishery are no longer required provisions of a fishery management plan.

The bill's language on bycatch -- fish and other species hauled up unintentionally -- exacerbates the problems by only requiring that bycatch reporting be implemented "to the extent practicable." But without information on bycatch, managers cannot effectively reduce it.

In addition, the bill undermines public participation and transparency by closing off meetings and comment periods to citizens. The bill authorizes the adoption of "alternative procedural mechanisms" for establishing fishery regulations, a process that would enable a fishery management council and federal fisheries officials to evade current requirements for public input, disclosure and participation.

Under a new "alternatives procedures provision," virtually all rules governing a fishery, from regulations to plan amendments, could occur without the transparency required for other federal actions. The bill also greatly broadens the Magnuson-Stevens Act's existing Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) requirements to exempt any meeting that includes a federal employee, a fishery management council or staff member.