U.S. House Panel Advances Fisheries Law

The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee today passed a bill to renew the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s fundamental fisheries law. The sponsor, Alaska Congressman Don Young, says the law has kept foreign fishing fleets off America’s shores and sustained healthy fisheries.

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“And we’re trying to maintain the integrity of the original act by adding some smaller changes, and (among) the smaller changes are flexibility,” he told the committee.

The bill has alarmed some fishermen and conservationists. They say the bill undercuts a key element of Magnuson-Stevens: That fisheries managers act on science. Several Democrats on the committee voiced that argument, too.

“H.R. 1335 would take us back to the dark ages by gutting science-based requirements to rebuild overfished stocks and to set annual catch limits,” said  Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the committee’s top Democrat.

Among the new flexibilities, the bill removes the requirement of a 10-year stock assessment period for rebuilding depleted fisheries. Young says some regions of the country lack enough scientific data to adhere to rigid rules, and he says management councils should be able to respond more quickly to dynamic situations.

Another controversial measure Young added to the bill says the regional fisheries management councils are responsible for reviewing environmental impacts and no separate agency review is required. Critics say that would weaken a bedrock environmental law known as NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. Young says he’s trying to avoid duplicate reviews, and remove opportunities for lawsuits.

“I’m trying to keep the legal beagles out of the fishing industry, where they’ve used the legal beagles for the environmental community to impede the fishing process and the proper harvesting of the fish and healthy stocks. And they’ve done that,” Young said.

That provision is likely to disappoint tribal advocates in Alaska who claim federally managed fisheries are damaging salmon runs important to subsistence. Last year, the Association of Village Council Presidents, Kawarek, Tanana Chiefs Conference, and the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association  wrote a letter asking Young to leave the NEPA process as it is because it gives tribes a stronger voice in fisheries management.

Chris Oliver, executive director of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in Anchorage, says he doesn’t think the bill would erode the fundamentals of the Magnuson Stevens Act, although he says his council is fine with the existing law.

“We don’t think the changes they put in the act are really likely to have any effect on how we manage fisheries in the North Pacific,” Oliver said. “I think it could allow for some legitimate flexibility  in other regions — and even perhaps in future situations in the North Pacific — without eroding the basic underlying conservation measures” of the law.

Young says he’s still working on additions to the bills concerning subsistence and the Community Development Quota program, so the bill is likely to be revised before the full House votes on it.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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