Rep. Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act Is a Surefire Disaster for New England’s Ocean, Fisheries and Communities

New England needs fisheries laws to move modern ecosystem-based fisheries management forward. Photo credit: NMFS

Tomorrow morning in the nation’s capital the House Natural Resources Committee will convene to deliberate a “discussion draft” of a bill to revise the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). The MSA is designed to be revised every five years, and that time has come again. After oversight hearings by both the House and the Senate last year, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings has made the first legislative effort to put his Congressional pen to paper. My advice to the Chairman is to scrap his bill and start over.

Simply put, the Hastings draft ignores the state of New England’s fisheries and the need to move modern fishery management forward. Instead of recognizing the success of the MSA over time and recent improvements to the law to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations, the Hastings draft bill drags fisheries management back into the dark ages with a handful of attention grabbing measures which, if enacted, would take modern fisheries management to a permanent state of overfishing.

Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act proposes to:

  • Allow overfishing to continue by delaying the beginning of rebuilding measures for as long as seven years. Once rebuilding measures for one targeted species finally starts they could extend for decades with no meaningful deadline for completion.
  • Allow fishery management councils to outright ignore recommendations from their own science and statistical committees in setting catch limits. Under this proposal the huge short-term economic pressure that the New England Fishery Management Council constantly suffers to increase catch limits on commercially targeted species from cod to monkfish to scallops to sea herring would overwhelm the results of stock assessments, hard data and science-based management.
  • Exempt fisheries management from meaningful environmental review. Chairman Hastings has had a long time goal of undercutting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its provisions for environmental impact review of federal management as well as the possibility for the involvement of citizens and other stakeholder groups. Responsible fisheries management and the public’s interest do not benefit from reducing transparency and stakeholder involvement.
  • Allow commercially driven fishery management councils to have control over the recovery of threatened and endangered ocean wildlife such as sea turtles. Hastings has had it out for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since he was a freshman member of the House “Endangered Species Reform Task Force” in 1995. This draft bill just became a vehicle for the Chairman’s desire to undercut the ESA.
  • Undercut other bedrock conservation laws such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, as well as prohibit taxpayer-funded data from being used for New England’s regional ocean planning effort that has been underway for several years. With the success that Rhode Island and Massachusetts have had in developing state-based ocean plans, and the deep interest that all coastal states and many communities have in developing an ocean-based wind energy industry in New England, how does it make sense to restrict any information that would put fishermen and the fishing industry on the best possible footing in a regional ocean plan?

If you have followed New England fisheries in the news the last few years you will be aware of two apparent truths: 1) The New England region has some of the richest fisheries in the nation. 2) New England fishermen are broke and are on the edge of bankruptcy. The North Atlantic scallop fishery is a model of economic success stemming from improvements in science-based management, whereas the New England Atlantic cod fishery represents a disastrous litany of attempts to continue overfishing and delay responsible management measures such as habitat protection, reducing bycatch and protecting the forage base that many other species rely upon.

Inside each of these New England fishing stories sits strong evidence of where Congress needs to lead on the reauthorization of the MSA. Today you can hardly buy an Atlantic cod on Cape Cod, but two of the top three fisheries in the nation are New England scallops and Maine lobsters. Now 67% of Massachusetts fisheries revenue comes from sea scallops and lobsters and 80% of Maine’s revenues come from lobsters alone. These are both species that are highly susceptible to warming temperatures and ocean acidificationNew England needs to rebuild its other fisheries to biological and economic health as quickly as possible so that the risks to the region’s fishing economy are reduced. Further delays in the guise of “management flexibility”  is a fool’s game: not a single overfished fishery in this country is economically healthy. 

New England needs an MSA reauthorization bill that promotes the long-term health and productivity of our ocean by establishing ecosystem-based fisheries management. We don’t need a political bill that is designed to be an election year platform.


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