More than one way to manage the nation’s fisheries
by John Brownlee
Jan 22, 2018, 12:01 AM
For the first time ever, reauthorization of the nation’s overarching marine fishery management law will take into account concerns of America’s recreational anglers. In mid-December, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources approved H.R. 200, a bill sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, amending the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
While the vast majority of the public hails progress on the bill as long overdue, an unusual coalition of environmentalists and commercial fishing entities has roundly condemned it, feverishly depicting the bill as an attack on the oceans and a threat to the future of the nation’s marine resources. As much as detractors would like to employ hysterics and hyperbole to maintain the status quo, the provisions championed by the recreational angling community are not an attempt to roll back conservation-minded regulations. They are the culmination of many years of work by a huge stakeholder group to address very real shortcomings in how the nation manages its marine fisheries.
The fundamental challenge in current federal fisheries management law is that it was designed from inception to manage large-scale, industrial fisheries, using tools that can be applied to hundreds of commercial boats whose catch can be measured to the pound. The system breaks down when those same tools are shoe-horned to apply to hundreds of thousands of recreational boats.
For example, current federal law requires an annual catch limit – interpreted as an exact number of pounds that can be caught – for every species, regardless of whether there is good science or an adequate monitoring system in place. ACLs were designed to work in commercial fisheries where relatively few boats bring their catch to specific docks to be weighed and sold. But there is no system in place to count every fish caught by hundreds of thousands of recreational participants, going in and out of thousands of ramps, docks, and marinas. Recreational management quickly devolves into a series of guesses and estimates that seldom make sense to anyone.
Anglers are enthusiastically supporting ongoing efforts to improve their harvest data using a variety of new technologies and reporting requirements, and language included in Young’s bill will provide modest but important exemptions to better align ACLs with the recreational data that is available.
Similar common-sense provisions were inserted into H.R. 200 that carefully address other areas of the law that present unnecessary obstacles to proper management of recreational fisheries. The bill incorporates language from the Modern Fish Act (H.R. 2023) that was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Garrett Graves, R-La., and cosponsored by a bipartisan list of 24 cosponsors. The basic tenets of the Modern Fish Act were developed after an extensive, year-long effort in 2014 to engage the recreational angling community on ways to improve management of recreational fisheries.
Among the issues ultimately addressed in H.R. 200 are allocation, exempted fishing permits and limited access privilege programs. H.R. 200 establishes clear, objective criteria upon which allocation decisions can be based, and requires periodic review of allocations in mixed-used fisheries in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Currently, the process is rusted shut. We continue to be stuck with grossly outdated allocations that do not reflect current economic or demographic realities.
This landmark legislation would establish specific criteria to evaluate exempted fishing permit applications and formalize an expanded review process that requires greater regional stakeholder input on the merits of each permit application. H.R. 200 would also establish criteria for measuring programs that give away public fisheries to commercial harvesters or charter operators through limited access privilege programs (also known as catch shares) and require a study on the impacts of privatization before new programs can be established.
Over the past 40 years, the Magnuson-Stevens Act has been tailored into an efficient law for the management of industrial fisheries, and it is understandable that those who are best suited to it are motivated to protect the status quo. However, the goal of everyone who enjoys our oceans is simple: sustainable, healthy fisheries, and contrary to what some would have you believe, there is more than one way to achieve that objective.
John Brownlee hosts Anglers Journal TV and is a nationally recognized leader in fisheries management having served on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and chaired The Billfish Foundation.