Earlier today, the House Resources Committee endorsed and moved to the floor of the House of Representatives, legislation which significantly weakens current legal protections for American’s ocean fish. Entitled innocuously, the “Magnuson-Stevens Act Amendments of 2002” (H.R. 4749), the bill weakens the fish conservation standards established by Congress in 1996. Today, as fish population collapses are driving fishermen out of business in New England and along the West Coast, the bill authored by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) rolls back the conservation and sustainability provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and will further hasten the destruction of America’s fish populations and the death of the industry that depends on them.
Among the most troubling of the bill’s provisions is its elimination of the current fishery management plan requirement to assess and report on bycatch, the catching and killing of non-target ocean wildlife. Coupled with the bill’s effective elimination of the requirement to minimize the adverse impacts of fishing on important marine fish habitats and the weakening of the legal definition of “overfished,” H.R. 4749 will reverse the three main conservation improvements gained through passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996.
“A recent federal report showed that nearly one-third of assessed federally managed fish stocks are overfished, experiencing overfishing, or both,” says Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network (Network), a national coalition of more then 150 commercial and recreational fishing groups, environmental organizations and aquariums, “To consider rolling back any of the conservation standards that were put in place six years ago is irresponsible, and dangerous, to the future of fish and fishing.”
Amendments offered by Representatives Rahall (D-WV) and Miller (D-CA) that would have strengthened the fish conservation standards in H.R. 4749 and protected fishermen and fishing communities from poorly designed individual fishing quota programs were defeated on virtually party line votes. The following are some of the problems with this legislation.
Definition of Overfished
H.R. 4749 changes the legal definition of “overfished,” so that confusion over whether a fish stock is depressed as a result of overfishing or natural causes will result. This will result in less protection for these depleted populations. Without this protection, the well-documented stock collapses in New England and the Pacific Coast may become commonplace.
“Increasingly, we are witnessing not only severe population declines among many species of marine fish, but also the near-extinction of fish from ecosystems where they were once abundant. We need to strengthen the definition of overfished not weaken it as some members of Congress are attempting to do,” says Mark Powell, Director of Fish Conservation at The Ocean Conservancy.
Essential Fish Habitat (EFH)
H.R. 4749 would severely limit the application of the current legal requirement to minimize the adverse impact of fishing on EFH by creating new and unattainably high data requirements for protecting EFH.
"Common sense tells us that all of the ocean is essential fish habitat. This bill, in effect, says that none of the ocean is essential fish habitat," said Gerald Leape, director of Marine Conservation for the National Environmental Trust. "If this bill becomes law, we will have lost all of the key conservation protections for the fish that were gained just six years ago."
Bycatch, defined as the wasteful killing of non-target ocean wildlife, is a major problem facing our oceans. In 1996, fisheries mangers were required to submit and implement plans to minimize bycatch. Under H.R. 4749, the Secretary of Commerce is required to devise a national bycatch reduction plan, but there is no requirement that the plan ever be implemented.
"With our fisheries crashing, Congress has a historic opportunity to change this course and to protect our oceans, food supply and fishing industry," says Phil Kline, head of Oceana's Fisheries Policy & Programs and a 26-year commercial fishing veteran. "Yet, the bill to renew the nation's fisheries law still fails to do the job. It weakens existing law by eliminating requirements to minimize wasted catch and exposing fragile habitats to damaging fishing.”
H.R. 4749 requires the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a study into the need for fisheries observer programs. Independent studies have consistently demonstrated the need to gather more scientific data on fish, and the impacts of fishing on the marine environment. Requiring yet another study will only lengthen the time it takes to institute the critically important and necessary observer programs to gather these data.
"On the West Coast, we have been fishing for years under assumptions based on inadequate scientific information. If we had better information, the crisis that is driving family fishermen out of business up and down the West Coast could have been avoided. We need to gather scientifically valid data now; if we wait too long, more fisheries could well experience what the West Coast is now," said Peter Huhtala, program director of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council.
Individual Fishing Programs (IFQs)
A Congressional moratorium on the establishment of new Individual Fishing Quota programs that allocate the opportunity to catch fish to fishermen is set to expire on September 30th. The Network and its fishing and conservation member organizations strongly believe that legislative standards that ensure that conservation is enhanced, and fishermen and fishing communities are protected, must be in place before any further IFQ programs are allowed. While H.R. 4749 does contain IFQ program standards, much stricter standards and more specificity are required to insure that conservation is enhanced and equity preserved. An amendment by Congressman George Miller (D-CA) was added to the bill which prohibits processing quota, an anti-competitive system limiting what companies can buy from fishermen. However, an amendment by Congressman Jay Inslee (D-WA) exempted the North Pacific from Mr. Miller’s amendment.
“Mr. Miller took a stand for fishing families and free enterprise by preventing the allocation if processing quota in H.R. 4749,” says Dorothy Childers, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, “But Mr. Inslee robbed Alaska of these protections by authorizing an exemption in the North Pacific, an unprecedented give away to large, foreign-owned corporations. Strong conservation and community standards are needed before IFQ’s should be allowed.”