National Policy

The Myth of Flexibility

Peter Shelley testifying before the House Committee on Natural Resources on December 1, 2011.

Today, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on Congressman Doc Hastings’ proposed bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Conservation Law Foundation Senior Counsel Peter Shelley’s oral testimony to the committee is included below; his full testimony can be read here

Good morning Chairman Hastings, Ranking Member Defazio and other members of the Natural Resources Committee.

My name is Peter Shelley, Senior Counsel with the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.

I am not here this morning to talk about the economic disaster that some New England cod fishermen face. Congress has provided $32.8 million public dollars in disaster relief to these fishermen and the New England delegation deserves great credit for that.

I am here to challenge the notion that the Magnuson Act’s rigid rebuilding requirements, quota accountability provisions, or the science-based quotas are in any way to blame for that disaster, the loss of the nation’s oldest fishery on Atlantic cod. If the 2006 amendments had been in place in the1990s, that $32.8 million could have been appropriated elsewhere.

Overfishing–not the environment, not seals, not sunspots, not the warming of the oceans–overfishing fully explains why there are no cod to catch anymore in New England. New England’s fishermen were allowed to catch all the cod because short-term economic needs and flexibility with the minimum management goals overrode long-term economic benefits and sustainability.

The fisheries that are in trouble in New England are in trouble because rebuilding was improvidently delayed and ineffectually pursued. The future was sacrificed to the present.

Even today, there is still a directed commercial and recreational fishery on Atlantic cod in New England.

Existing law allows managers to adjust rebuilding times to account for environmental factors or biological circumstances; new stock assessments allow managers to reset the rebuilding clock; and rebuilding control rules allow fisheries to continue even if the rebuilding is not accomplished on schedule.

The law allows rebuilding quotas that have no better than a 50% chance of accomplishing their purposes and quotas for cod and other groundfish are always set at the highest level than can be legally justified.

As a result, overfishing on cod has been persistently occurring even after the 2006 amendments and we have a disaster with cod fishermen.

This Committee must not advance legislation that would recreate the very factors that led to the cod disaster in the New England in the first place.

Magnuson has not destroyed the New England groundfish fleet. What the industry representatives don’t tell you when they argue that the law should be weakened so that they can continue to overfish cod is that groundfish fleet permit holders have doubled their gross revenues from $226 million to $550 million from 1996 to 2011 in constant dollars.

Since Magnuson has been strengthened, gross vessel revenues for shellfish and fish landed in New England have doubled from $779 million to over $1.4 billion in constant dollars.

Most, if not all, of the issues that are being debated in this Committee are the subject of active debate in science circles, at the management councils and at NMFS. The Committee should let those processes play out.

At the same time, the Committee’s draft fails to address the real oncoming fisheries tsunami: the ecological shifts and instabilities associated with climate change already documented in New England with ocean temperature increases, dropping pH levels, major fluctuations in plankton blooms, and shifts in species abundance and productivity.

More than 74% of the gross revenues in New England in 2010 came from shell-forming animals like scallops and lobsters that will likely be affected by climate change.

Congress needs to reach bipartisan agreement on measures that push fishery management councils and NOAA to develop more comprehensive and dynamic management approaches based on ecosystem-based fisheries management, expanded habitat refuges and reference sites, protection of forage fish, and other approaches being strongly recommended by the scientific community in the face of these oncoming ecological shifts.

The Committee discussion draft’s preoccupation with weakening Magnuson provisions that are working now as Congress intended is a distraction from the real needs of this Nation’s fisheries and ocean resources.

The future of our fishing communities and the health of our oceans relies on Congress taking a sober, bipartisan view of what is really at stake in the legislative choices it makes. The Committee should approach Magnuson reauthorization based on hard fact and a firm commitment to the best welfare of future generations of fishermen.

Thank you for considering our comments.

To take action against the proposed bill, click here.


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