Support of H.R. 200 adds insult to injury…

In January of 2017, Representative Don Young (R-AK) introduced another bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

If you’re a real virgin to all of this, the “Magnuson Act” governs how we manage fisheries in federal waters (outside of 3 miles from the coast). You can find a pretty good synopsis of what it’s all about here: FISSUES, MAGNUSON ACT.

Young’s H.R.200 – Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act is the third iteration of what most of us consider a terrible bill… Terrible for your average angler anyway. It’s actually pretty good if you benefit from large scale extraction. We’ll tell you why here in a bit.

Representative Doc Hastings’ (R-WA) first introduced H.R. 4742 in the 113th (2013-2014) Congress… Then came a few minor changes with Young’s H.R. 1335 in the 114th (2015 -2016) Congress. That bill was given the moniker “Empty Ocean Act” by the ENGO community which, along with conservation-minded anglers, generally opposed it. The Obama Administration threatened to veto it, should it ever have made it that far.

The truth, however, is back then there was little chance of such an extreme bill making it into the hands of the President, much less him signing it. Today? Well, we probably don’t have to tell you how things have changed.

House Mark Up

On December 13 the House Natural Resources Committee met to “mark up” H.R.200, as well Rep. Graves’s H.R.3588 RED SNAPPER Act of 2017 (a bill which extends state management of red snapper in the Gulf out to 25 miles, from the current 9).

Here’s what went down:

Right off the bat, Young offered an Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute (ANS) – a move that replaces an entire bill’s text with new text.

The new HR.200 ANS containes nearly all of the original language of H.R.200, but also includes a number of provisions included in the Modern Fish Act, HR.2023. If you are a regular reader at Fissues, than you likely know how we feel about that bill. Here’s a rundown if you aren’t: MODERN FISH ACT… NOT SO MODERN

Throughout the day, several amendments were offered to make H.R.200 less offensive and, of course, pretty much all of them failed. HR.200 ANS, passed out of Committee on a party-line vote, and so did H.R.3588 (the Red Snapper Act). The next step is for the bills to get scheduled for a floor vote. When that happens (likely pretty soon) it’s almost a certainty that both will again pass on party line votes.

(Re the Red Snapper Act, while we’re not big fans of having the states manage anything more than what they are already managing – primarily because they don’t have to comply with the conservation mandates of Magnuson, and can thus legally allow overfishing, which is precisely why H.R. 3588 (Red Snapper Act) was introduced – H.R. 3588 deals with the red snapper exclusively. So, we’re going to stay away from this for now and just focus on H.R. 200 here.)

Here’s why H.R. 200 stinks….

Section 4 of the billFlexibility in Rebuilding Fish Stocks.

This section lowers rebuilding time period mandate from “short as possible” to “short as practicable.”

While that may not seem like such a big difference, having sat at federal fishery management meetings (i.e. “Council” meetings) for the better part of the last decade, “as practicable” is and will be interpreted quite a bit differently than “as possible”.

For instance, it may not be “practicable” to put constraining measures, which might be necessary to rebuild a stock, on fishermen that could result in short term economic impacts… or provide any inconvenience for that matter.

Current law requires the rebuilding of depleted fish populations be “as short as possible,” but no more than 10 years.

With the new language in place, well, then managers could extend rebuilding as long as they wanted to, and I can’t imagine they wouldn’t extend them… In almost every circumstance.

Don’t know about you guys, but we’d certainly like to see and enjoy the benefits of abundant, rebuilt stocks in our lifetimes, and certainly sooner rather than later.

That’s not the worst of it though… Section 4 goes on to add numerous expansive exemptions from having a rebuilding timeframe at all. Such as, If other factors besides fishing contribute to the stock being depleted.

Really? So, Councils don’t need to make an effort to rebuild if there are factors other than fishing that are contributing to it’s depletion? Like climate change, water quality etc.? With pretty much every stock, you could make such assumptions.

Other exemptions include If the stock is in a mixed-stock fishery but rebuilding it would cause economic harm to the fishery; and if fishing occurs on the stock outside of the U.S. and if “unusual events” have occurred.

With such exemptions at their disposal, Councils, often under immense political pressure to allow unsustainable fishing, could avoid rebuilding in almost any circumstance.

We should be clear here that rebuilding without timelines was attempted in the early incarnations of the Magnuson Act, and rebuilding plans regularly failed to make any progress.

Lastly, Section 4 authorizes the use of “alternative” rebuilding strategies. Current law already allows for the use of such strategies, as long as they avoid overfishing; no such qualification appears in H.R. 200. So, the intent here is pretty clear.

Section 5 – Modifications to the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) Requirement

This section would exempt hundreds of species from constraining annual catch limits by including loopholes that remove annual catch limits for “Ecosystem component” species, which are broadly defined to include any fish caught that were not a main target. This would remove any sustainable limits on any non-target fish. In other words, species caught as bycatch, or species caught and sold in a mixed fishery where they weren’t the primary target.

It would also exempt stocks for which fishing has “little impact” on the stock. Whether or not fishing has “little impact” is of course highly subjective.

Further exempted are stocks for which international fishing has an impact on stock health.

This section also allows consideration of “environmental changes” and “economic needs” when setting Annual Catch Limits. Of course, such consideration is already included in the “Optimum Yield” definition, yet the intent here seems to be to place the onus on environmental changes, and to put economic concerns before the biology of the stock when determining Annual Catch Limits.

Sec. 6 – Distinguishing Between Overfished and Depleted

This section replaces the term “overfished” with the term “depleted” throughout the Act.

It also requires stock status updates to distinguish between those species which are depleted because of fishing and those that are a result of “factors other than fishing.”

In most cases, such a distinction is impossible, because in most cases both have contributed to depletion, and largely cannot be untwined.

Technically, the word change doesn’t do anything, as long as the requirements to rebuild and manage to science-based catch limits remain intact. Regardless of the reasons for depletion, the councils would still be required to rebuild, and fishing is the only thing they can control.

Yet motivation for this change seems to be weakening rebuilding or other conservation requirements on fishermen, because depletion might not be entirely their fault. It is quite frequent to hear at public hearings and management meetings, that since the stock decline wasn’t their fault, fishermen shouldn’t shoulder any of the burden to rebuild it.

So, in other words, Councils could just claim the main cause for a depleted stock wasn’t fishing, and then just do nothing as the stock plummets.

Section 7 – Transparency and Public Process

This section would require the Council’s Science and Statistical Committees (SSCs) to allow for public input.

This sounds okay, however, the intent of the SSC meetings is to allow for unbiased discussion of the science, permitting members of the SSC to come to objective consensus-based conclusions.

While some limited public input already takes place at such meetings, mandating full scale public participation (i.e. allowing a barrage of folks questioning the science, making accusations etc., which of course comes later on in the process anyway) would undoubtedly jam up such meetings and could corrupt what is supposed to be an objective apolitical science-based decision-making process.

Section 14 – Ensuring Consistent Management for Fisheries Throughout Their Range

This section gives precedence to the Magnuson Act wherever it overlaps with the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Antiquities Act of 1906, and the Endangered Species Act, effectively giving the Councils, which are largely populated by industry stakeholders, management preference over such acts.

What this does is essentially give the Councils the power to allow fishing when other designations under the above-mentioned statutes would prohibit it.

Section 27 – Healthy Fisheries Through Better Science

This section requires the Secretary to develop a “stock assessment plan” to assess all stocks in all the Council’s Fishery Management Plans.

Of course, more frequent, updated, better stock assessments would be great… IF NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center had unlimited resources. But we’ve heard them say on record, more than once that they don’t, and it’s very unlikely they’ll get more funding/staff from congress. Pie in the sky stuff here.

But what’s concerning is that this section includes a finding to elevate the status of data collected from “non-traditional sources” as “best available science,” and creates a platform for increasing inclusion of such non-traditional data sources.

While everyone supports the inclusion of more data and the improvement of stock assessments, there is nothing terribly specific about the quality of data. If the intent is to include data that is anecdotal, hasn’t been peer-reviewed etc., then this would be bad.

Section 29 – Authority to Use Alternative Fishery Management Measures

This section allows “alternative” fishery management measures to be used for recreational fisheries. As written, it could exempt recreational fisheries from Annual Catch Limits. (See MODERN FISH ACT… NOT SO MODERN).

There is a great deal of flexibility and diversity of strategies in place already, and no measures are prohibited so long as they result in sustainable, accountable catch. Thus, it’s easy to question the need and intent of this section.

While yes, recreational fishing is by nature different than its commercial fishing counterpart, both need to be accountable and managed sustainably.

What it all means

As you can probably tell, we’re not big fans of H.R. 200 as amended.

In fact, it’s pretty clear that the intent of such legislation is to sanction overfishing… In just about every circumstance imaginable.

Should the current version of this bill make it to the president’s desk, it would almost undoubtedly put us back two decades where overfishing was allowed and rampant.

Yes, allowing all these loopholes/exemptions might seem attractive to some folks, so they can kill more fish in the short term. But trust us… It’s a bad, bad idea. Because overfishing and depletion will affect us more than anyone.

We’ve said it many times here, but we’ve got to say it again. Anglers use the most inefficient gear and are generally far worse fishers than the commercial side, thus we are going to be the first ones to lose access.

I mean, for sure H.R. 200 will benefit the commercial fleet, who, with their big boats and nets will find and catch fish even when stocks are “overfished” or “depleted”, or whatever you wanna call it. And it may benefit those larger, longer-range for-hire boats that can make the trek to get on spatial and temporal aggregations of a depleted stock.

But for the rest of us? The precautionary management that was made law with the 1996 and 2006 amendments, might have made size limits higher, bag limits lower and seasons shorter, but it has undoubtedly resulted in access to more, and larger fish.   And with recreational fisheries, it’s been proven over and over again, that the more fish and larger the fish in the water, the greater the participation level is.

And so we’re having a very hard time understanding how anyone from the recreational fishing community could support it. I mean, it’s almost understandable why some anglers down south, who have lost access to red snapper in federal waters would support the Modern Fish Act. But H.R. 200? Inexcusable…

Seriously, it should be insulting to all of us that any group would.

Where we are now

Most expect Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s panel on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, to introduce a companion bill in the Senate relatively soon.

It’s inevitable that some changes to H.R. 200 will be be needed to get the required 60 votes in the Senate.

That said, there are certainly Senate Democrats with vocal commercial-fishing and extractive recreational-fishing constituents who support weakening the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act; a large number of those Democrats represent states between New Jersey and Maine. And historically, some of these Democrats seem to want to show public support for “independent, hard-working fishermen” despite the long-term tradeoffs that come with overfishing… Thus, we may see an equally bad bill come out of the Senate.

Of course, there are plenty of professional and non-professional fishermen in such states who understand the benefits of conservation and, more importantly, sustainability. The reality, however, is that such Senators and their staff rarely hear from those constituents…

That needs to change…

Please keep this in mind. Because when a Senate bill drops we’re gonna need readers and every conservation-minded angler out there to make a call.

It is not an overstatement to say that such calls may be the determining factor on whether or not there are fish in the water for us to catch… For our kids to catch.

Stay tuned at Fissues.og. And be ready.


Share it on