Now that the dust has settled from the national elections, many of us in the fisheries world are turning our attention to the new session of Congress and what it means for the issues we care about.
Ocean issues rarely occupy a spot in the national conversation, and this year was no different. And given that the party makeup of both the House and Senate remains largely unchanged, we can expect much of the same posturing and gridlock we have seen in recent years.
Nevertheless, there are a few personnel changes – and the potential reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the law that governs our nation’s fisheries policy – that will have some consequence on these issues, for better or worse.
Retirements and Committee Changes
In the Senate, the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over all federal fisheries policy, will see Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) retire at the end of this year. Sen. Hutchison – the committee’s current Ranking Member – and her staff have worked well in a bipartisan manner on ocean issues. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) will likely succeed her as the top Republican on the committee. While we don’t know exactly how this will affect fisheries issues, Oceana hopes that he will show leadership in his new position and be mindful of the coastal communities in South Carolina that rely on healthy oceans and fisheries.
In Sen. Snowe, the committee – and the Senate as a whole – is losing not only a partner in bipartisanship but also a strong fisheries advocate. She has been intimately involved in New England fishing issues over the years, serving as Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard for the past few years and as chair when the Republicans controlled the Senate. She supported many of the bills Oceana supported, including those addressing illegal fishing and seafood fraud. Her knowledge of and passion for fishing issues, even if we didn’t always agree, will be missed. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) will likely succeed her as Ranking Member of the subcommittee. Oceana is hopeful that Sen. Wicker will become an advocate for sustainable management of fisheries around the country, including those who fish in the Gulf of Mexico near Mississippi.
In the House, while leaders are still determining committee chairs and membership, the biggest change comes with the retirement of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). Rep. Frank has been a tireless advocate for the fishing industry, particularly in New England. We expect other representatives to fill some of that gap, but none will be as vocal or as influential as Rep. Frank. Along with Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), he was a lead sponsor of the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act, which would require traceability of the seafood supply chain. Rep. Frank did not always share Oceana’s views on fishery management issues, but he was a strong advocate to end seafood fraud, which hurts commercial fishermen and our oceans. Oceana offers our encouragement to Rep. William Keating (D-MA), who now represents the valuable port of New Bedford, and we hope that he will continue to be the strong voice for modern fisheries management in the new Congress that he has been in the past.
Many fisheries stakeholders are already gearing up for the reauthorization of the MSA, which is due in 2013. Certain provisions of the law have come under fire in recent years as being too burdensome on the struggling commercial fishing industry. This has prompted some Members of Congress to introduce legislation that would weaken the MSA by relaxing some of the scientific tools designed to protect vulnerable fish populations and commercial fishing in the long run. Accordingly, we expect to see the reintroduction of these bills, as well as a push from the fishing industry to relax the law’s strong environmental standards in the reauthorization of the MSA.
So what does this all really mean? We hope Congress will work to address issues that have a strong bipartisan base of support, such as seafood fraud and illegal fishing. We also hope that Congress will take a reasonable approach to reauthorization of the MSA by focusing on the long-term health of the oceans and responsible fishing practices that protect habitat, reduce bycatch, and use scientifically-based catch limits to end overfishing and rebuild overfished fish stocks. Oceana will be part of the conversations to ensure that responsible fisheries management paired with ocean conservation is a priority in the 113th Congress.
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