I’m all for anglers going down to DC and expressing their concerns. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it didn’t bother me greatly that anglers are going, literally by the busload, to join hands with a commercial fishing industry not known for its conservation ethic, in an effort to weaken some of the most important provisions of fishery management law .
Congress, with what appeared to be overwhelming support from the American people, reaffirmed the need to rebuild overfished stocks promptly when it reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006, upholding the timeframe first enacted in the Sustainable Fisheries Act amendments of 1996. Revised language in the reauthorization explicitly directed fishery management councils to heed the advice of independent scientists on their Science and Statistical Committees regarding the maximum harvest levels which will permit managers to rebuild fisheries on schedule.
Such a change in the law was long sought by not only environmentalists but by conservation-minded angling groups, who argued that the provision was needed to alter the culture on regional fisheries management councils, which have a history of discounting scientific recommendations if the resultant economic pain threatened to be too great for their constituencies. In addition, the reauthorization required firm catch limits and accountability measures be established to ensure that such fisheries were rebuilt.
In short, the 2006 Magnuson Act Reauthorization gives fishery management law real teeth and thus far it appears to be working. Rebuilding for most species is either done, or near completion.
Unsurprisingly, because of firm time lines and rebuilding goals, there’s been some economic pain suffered not only by the commercial fishing industry, but the recreational fishing industry, as seasons and bag limits shrink and the stocks recover from decades of overfishing. A poor economy has exacerbated the situation. In response, each year since the Reauthorization, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has introduced the “Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act”. Last June, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced companion legislation in the Senate. As I understand it, the march in DC is essentially to show support for these two bills.
At first glance flexibility in fisheries management may seem reasonable. If you allow some exemptions so that some stocks can rebuild in 15 or 20 years rather than 10, and the population remains on an upward trajectory the whole time with no overfishing, why not allow such exemptions so that folks are not hurt by restrictive measures? Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There is in fact great danger to adding such flexibility in current fishery management law. It would set us back decades, and would greatly benefit commercial fishermen while inevitably hurting anglers. Here’s why:
First, the legislation changes language in the existing law from “as short as possible” to “as short as practicable.” This small alteration could greatly weaken Congress’ intent to require fishery managers to rebuild overfished stocks as quickly as possible and gives the Councils ample reason to procrastinate. The flexibility legislation’s wording is so ambiguous that I’d think it would be nearly impossible to implement any finite time frames for any fishery rebuilding schedule. The legislation would merely cloak delay in the euphemism “flexibility,” and would allow managers to avoid both lawsuits and the need to recover fish populations.
Still, advocates of the Flexibility legislation continue to say that a 10-year rebuilding requirement is “arbitrary” and not science-based even when scientists clearly say such goals are indeed possible. And I suppose in the strictest sense, 10 years could be considered arbitrary. But any deadline could be so labeled. A 20-year timeline would be just as “arbitrary” as a 10-year one, and Council members, seeking to placate their constituents would be unlikely to work any harder to recover a stock in 20 or 30 years than in 10. And even after that, there’s no reason to believe managers would get serious about rebuilding and wouldn’t only ask for more flexibility down the road. Don’t know about you guys, but I’d like to see some of these fisheries rebuilt in my lifetime, which is already happening under current law!
A good example is summer flounder, which ironically is the fish that began the “flexibility” movement. The species bottomed out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anglers, particularly those in my home state of New York, have had to make significant sacrifices, but as a result the stock has increased five-fold. Unpopular and painful as they may be, regulations have led to the expansion of the age and size structure. There is now an abundance of larger older fish, a big improvement over just a few years ago, when few fish survived past two years (14″) due to intense fishing pressure. This confirms how low this population was due to massive overfishing. Now, because of limits on overfishing, and adherence to a deadline for rebuilding, the stock is rebounding nicely. Summer flounder will likely be totally rebuilt by 2013.
Historically, by granting extensions, special exceptions etc., managers have done nothing but create worsening situations. “Flexibility” really takes us back to pre-1996 fisheries management, when “optimum yield” was defined as “maximum sustainable yield adjusted” to allow for various considerations, including economic impact. In practice, quotas were always set well above Maximum Sustainable Yield to increase short-term profits, resulting in the collapse of New England groundfish stocks. It’s disturbing to see the recreational fishing industry trying to return to those old, discredited policies, which would return us to the failed management system that led Congress to enact the rebuilding provisions in the first place. And let’s not forget that overfishing has more severe economic consequences than regulations designed to ensure sustainable fishing. Rebuilding fish populations to healthy levels makes good economic sense.
Yes, there are some teeth in the new Magnusson Act, which was authorized late in 2006 and yes, the regulations can really suck, especially if you are trying to run a charter business… But they are absolutely necessary if we want abundant and sustainable fisheries and the opportunity for the average-Joe to catch a fish rather than having to pay a professional to catch fish from a depleted stock. I can understand why commercial fishermen would adamantly disagree with me here, and I can understand the charter/party boat industry’s support of flexibility legalization, but I don’t get why any angler would want to go to DC to fight so that commercial interests can have greater flexibility to exploit a public fishery, and so make it harder for the average guy to find anything to catch.
Yet interestingly enough the Pallone and Schumer bill would not do anything to address most if not all of these matters.
Black sea bass and scup are both recovered stocks. In both cases restrictive regulations were the result of recreational overages. Nothing in the bill would have interfered with NMFS’ obligation to avoid overfishing (and thus the black sea bass closure would remain a valid measure), and the sea bass annual catch limit debate was resolved under current law. Similarly, the scup annual catch limit was established on a recovered stock–there was no question of the annual catch limit being established to meet a recovery deadline.
In short, the bill won’t address most of the problems that the recreational fishing industry always seems to mention in the same breath as “flexibility”. It does nothing to fix MRFSS, would not affect the closures, would not address MPAs, etc. About the only fishery it would have much application to is fluke, and by this point in the recovery, and with the 2008 year class coming on strong, the affect there would be trivial. The only ones that will be helped by the bill will be the New England commercial groundfishermen and the southern snapper/grouper types. Certainly not worth going to DC for I’d think.
My overarching point is this. Any student of fishery management can see that managers and fishermen have exploited every loophole they can to catch every last fish they can. While the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act late in 2006 closed some of the loopholes, it is clear that “flexibility” legislation would open up a whole slew of new ones. The temptation to push back rebuilding will perpetuate management based on politics rather than on science. These bills would, in effect, roll back the law to a time when fishery managers routinely placed short-term economic considerations over the long-term health of the fishery. We’ve tried “flexibility” all the way up to 1996 and it’s pretty clear, based on a history of overfishing, that it didn’t work. Flexibility was the problem back then and it’s certainly not the solution now.
One would think that anglers would support the Magnuson Stevenson Act and allow rebuilding rules to work as intended to restore healthy fisheries as soon as possible. Going down to DC to hold hands with commercial fisherman in the fight to weaken the most important conservation provisions in fishery management law just seems so wrong on so many levels. Man I would like to see anglers traveling down to DC so that they can express their desire to conserve stocks of fish, rather than their desire to take more. Perhaps we should start to arrange that?