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Changes Proposed for U.S. Fisheries Management: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This past Tuesday, the draft bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act was released by the U.S. House.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a big deal because this is the law that lays out how fisheries management works in the United States.  This time, a number of changes have been proposed by Representative Doc Hastings, some of which could fundamentally change fisheries management and fisheries science in U.S. waters.  The proposed changes immediately became controversial, garnering overwhelming support from witnesses to the House Natural Resources Committee hearing of the bill (witnesses included representatives from the recreational and commercial fishing industries as well as the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council) while the Pew Charitable Trust strongly opposed the bill, calling it the “Empty Oceans Act” (translated into GIFs by Upwell for your viewing pleasure).

How might the Hastings bill affect your favorite marine species (both in the water and on your dinner plate)?  Read on to see the good, bad, and ugly aspects of these proposed changes, at least according to this particular fisheries scientist.

I should stress that these are my opinions as a scientist, conservationist, and seafood lover, and not necessarily those of my fellow writers or any of you readers.  That’s what the comments section is for.

The Good

Despite the negative press that some aspects of the Hastings bill have gotten, I don’t think the whole thing is a non-starter.  Also, not everything in this category is completely praiseworthy, but might have the potential to fix some current issues in fisheries management.  Perhaps a better title would be “The Potentially Good.”

– The Hastings bill requires that management council meetings be streamed live to allow the public to view the proceedings.  In my opinion this is the best idea in the whole thing.  Few people, even those concerned with fisheries or marine conservation issues, really grasp the amount of back-and-forth politicking that goes into fisheries management.  This would allow interested members of the public (and fishers and scientists unable to make it to the meetings) to view management policy being made in real time, and would also create an extra layer of accountability for the councils.  Whatever ends up happening to this bill, I hope this part stays in.

– The bill would prevent establishment of catch share management plans without approval by a majority of permit holders (including currently non-active permits).  Though catch shares can and do work well in some fisheries, problems can arise when a handful of fishers or organizations buy up a lot of shares.  It’s a big jump from Total Allowable Catch (TAC)-based management to catch shares, and this would allow more opportunity for local fishers to decide whether they want to make that transition.  On the other hand, it does allow permit holders to kill attempts to establish a catch share program by simply not showing up for the vote.  I try to be an optimist (possibly a naive one) when it comes to attempts to bring fishermen to the table when setting management policies, so I’ll keep this in the “Good” category.

– Though the more sweeping wording on rebuilding plans and total allowable catch is problematic (keep reading), efforts to explicitly account for predator/prey relationships, movement across international boundaries, and economic needs are commendable.

The Bad

– One of the biggest complaints by Pew involves a three-year delay in implementing a rebuilding plan on top of the two years managers currently have to develop the plan.  This would essentially mean that policies to rebuild depleted fish stocks would not be allowed to even get started for five years.  This “phase-in” period would be put in place for what the bill refers to as “dynamic fisheries.”  Personally, I have yet to find a fishery that isn’t “dynamic” in some way, and the lack of a legal definition for the term basically leaves it up to the management councils (and whatever mix of industry, scientific, and NGO representatives are members).  This is supposedly to allow fishing communities extra time to adapt to management policies.  Rather than simply strengthen the requirement that a rebuilding plan account for the health of fishing communities, the bill gives a three-year period to continue fishing as normal (likely at the same rate that caused the stock to become depleted in the first place) before conservation measures finally set in.  I think this part of the bill’s heart is in the right place (minimizing impact on fishing communities) but in practice it will only prolong depletion of the stock in exchange for allowing fishers to “get ‘em while they can” in the short term.

The Ugly

– Total allowable catch (or catch quotas) are a cornerstone of current fisheries management.  The Hastings bill would completely eliminate quotas for two types of species: short-lived species and what the bill refers to as “ecosystem component species.”  The justification for eliminating quotas on short-lived species is that populations of these species are usually affected more by environmental factors than fishing pressure.  Working in North Carolina, the best example I can think of is the shrimp fishery.  Shrimp stocks fluctuate based on the prevailing conditions of that year, and populations are usually pretty robust regardless of landings.  The big problem with the shrimp fishery is bycatch, which brings up those “ecosystem component species.”  Ecosystem component species are defined as non-target, incidentally harvested species, better known as, you guessed it, bycatch.  The bill does state that species will not be classified as ecosystem components if they are currently classified as overfished or might be without conservation efforts, but this policy will absolutely declare open season on juveniles of species with currently healthy stocks.  To give a worst-case scenario, right now what limits the shrimp fishery is not necessarily quotas on the shrimp themselves, but catch limits on bycatch species.  Redefine bycatch as “ecosystem component species” and eliminate catch limits on them, and suddenly you have a virtually unregulated shrimp fishery, one that would only be checked by incidental catch of endangered species.  If shrimp fishermen could manage to avoid sea turtles and marine mammals, they could theoretically fish as much as they wanted.  It’s hard to read these proposed changes as anything but an attempt to eliminate regulation of shrimp and krill fisheries altogether.

– If you thought that was bad, the Hastings bill would explicitly allow for abuse in fisheries management by changing the way Magnuson-Stevens works with other environmental laws.  The bill would basically exempt fisheries management polices from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which means, among other things, that no environmental impact assessments would be required for fisheries management.  While management policies are inherently supposed to be pro-environment, this does open up the potential for abuse (especially with the policy described above that all but eliminates bycatch management for some fisheries).  This bill also states that any conflicts between Magnuson-Stevens and the National Marine Sanctuaries, Antiquities, and Endangered Species Acts would be controlled by Magnuson-Stevens.  Again, this raises the potential for abuse, especially if any one stakeholder group holds a majority in management councils.

On the balance, the Hastings bill has a handful good ideas and so-so ideas with likely good intentions that are overshadowed by complete overhauls of current (and successful) fishery management policies that leave U.S. fisheries wide open for abuse.  While others who oppose the bill have focused on changes in implementing rebuilding plans, to me the passages on quotas for short-lived and bycatch species were so shocking that I had to re-read them to make sure they were really in the bill.  I generally sympathize with fishermen and have an unabashed love of local seafood, but the big-picture changes proposed by Representative Hastings seem to counter the whole point of fisheries management, and counter policies that have actually been working.  That’s just one person’s opinion though, and I’m curious to see what you readers think.  Don’t be shy in the comments on this one.