National Policy

Seafood News Editor: House Magnuson Bill is “The Destabilization of Our Nation’s Fisheries Act”

The 2014 cod population on Georges Bank, located off Cape Cod in the easternmost side of the Gulf of Maine, was the lowest ever recorded—roughly 1 percent of what scientists say would be a healthy population.

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [The Editor’s View] by John Sackton May 6, 2015

(Seafoodnews.com is a subscription news service)

The Magnuson-Stevens Act revisions that were passed out of the House Committee on Natural Resources last week appear to create conditions for massive destabilization of US fisheries.

Despite the fact that Chairman Don Young is from Alaska, the bill he has allowed out of committee bears scant resemblance to anything that would have been allowed by former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.

In the eight years since the last Magnuson Reauthorization in 2007, US Fisheries have in general shown remarkable success, with a few notable failures.

Management successes have been widespread in the West Coast and Alaska. For example, the Alaska pollock fishery hit its low point in 2010, and good management practices have resulted in a rapid rebuilding of that stock to one of the highest levels ever.

Back around 2007 West Coast groundfish was in a real crisis. Rockfish bycatch was shutting down fisheries, the groundfish trawl fishery was in disarray, and commercial salmon fishing was curtailed up and down the coast. Since then, the groundfisheries have gone through a painful rationalization, which has led to their being highlighted now as prime examples of sustainable fisheries.

Salmon has come back on the West Coast, as survival of some key salmon runs has improved dramatically. Salmon returns to the Columbia river are now the highest since the 1930’s.

On the East Coast, despite record levels of haddock, the changing climate and conditions on Georges Bank have decimated New England cod, and that species is in critical short supply, constraining the entire New England groundfish sector.

Meanwhile, lobster, which is not a federally managed fishery, is enjoying the highest landings and values ever.

Scallops, which are federally managed, are every bit as successful as lobster, again with record values and a strong rotational management system in effect.

In the Gulf, the red snapper fishery is being rebuilt – but has fallen victim to a recreational commercial allocation fight – where the benefits of conservation by the commercial sector have been entirely given over to recreational fishermen.

The Gulf shrimp fishery has mostly been dealing with the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill, but landings have stabilized around their five year averages.

If the current version of Magnuson as passed out of committee in the House becomes law, we predict these successes will be less prevalent and harder to come by.

Instead, the councils will become political battlegrounds, where fisheries allocations are decided by referendum – as has happened with Florida gillnets and as is being attempted in Alaska with a popular vote on set nets. IN Oregon, voters turned on the Columbia River salmon fishery despite the management record of success.

In short – there are many interests who want to fight for fish, and who are only held in check by federal commitments to science and specific management measures.

The House Bill from Don Young guts these protections in two ways.

First, for the South Atlantic and Gulf, the bill expressly requires a re-allocation between commercial and recreational interests every three years. This would result in a permanent political campaign to privatize fisheries as ‘recreational only’, cutting out the commercial sector and depriving the seafood industry of the ability to sell these products to the American public.

It would also decimate any chance of new investment in the commercial sector, where the existing uncertainty of stock size and markets would be compounded by the certainty of repeated allocation fights.

The criteria for reallocation is any fishery where there is both a commercial and recreational component. This covers most of the commercial fisheries in the Southeast and the Gulf.

In short, the councils would change from being regulatory bodies that applied science to fishery management to allocation bodies making political decisions about fish based on who can mobilize the most votes and support.

This is a recipe for overfishing, unsustainability, and would move US world class fisheries management backward.

Although the Bill restricts this language to the Southeast, that is no guarantee that recreational interests in other areas won’t demand the same special rights. Already the major recreational allocation fights we have covered have not just been red snapper in the Gulf, but have been Columbia River salmon, halibut in Alaska, set net salmon in Alaska, and striped bass in the Mid Atlantic and New England.

The second problem with the bill is it takes a legitimate issue – the need for more flexible rebuilding timelines when a fishery is overfished, and creates a loop hole that eviscerates most conservation driven fisheries closures.

The new language first changes the term of rebuilding from whats ‘possible’ to what is ‘practicable’.

Then rebuilding of depleted and overfished fisheries could be slowed or abandoned when the following occurs:

-The stock is under international agreement

-The cause of stock depletion is outside the jurisdiction of the council

-The rebuilding program cannot be effective by only limiting fishing activities

-The rebuilding would lead to significant economic harm in another fishery, if the species are in a mixed fishery

-Informal transboundary agreements or activities outside the EEZ impact the stock

-The Secretary determines the stock has been impacted by unusual events that make rebuilding improbable without significant economic harm.

In addition the revised act includes more language on predator prey relationships, and the ecosystem role of forage fish.

What has made US Fisheries Management the singular success it has been, and the most sustainable fisheries management regime globally, has been the basic commitment to put science ahead of politics for rebuilding and allocating fisheries.

Decisions have to be justified based on historical experience, peer reviewed science, and a high level of competence is demanded of regulators.

The new language would throw open a much bigger portion of our nation’s fisheries to political horse trading and accommodation, without regard for history or science.

This is the goal of the recreational fishing lobby, which has chafed under the restrictive rules that have come from requiring both recreational and commercial fisheries to live within established limits on removals.

As seen in the recently defeated move on Red Snapper, the legislatures in many states will respond to political pressure from the sport fishing lobby, and this lobby so far has succeeded in creating a Magnuson Act that will dramatically further their aims.

That is why we should call this version the Destabilization of our Nation’s Fisheries Act.


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