Rewrite of federal fisheries law navigates rough partisan waters

fishing boats
Fishing boats wait for an opener in Chignik’s city harbor in 2019. (Photo by Alex Hager/KDLG)

There are two names that come up a lot in the Alaska fisheries world.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, named for U.S. Senators Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) and Ted Stevens (R-AK), has been around since 1976 and sets the rules for federal fisheries in the U.S.

Management plans set in those waters have to stand up to the act and its national standards — for example, a plan that would’ve closed a large swath of Cook Inlet to commercial fishing was overturned earlier this year because the court said it did not comply with Magnuson.

The act has been renewed and revised twice, in 1996 and 2006. On Sept. 29, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a long-sought rewrite of the act that tightens restrictions on bycatch — which is the incidental catch of non-target species, like salmon — and calls out the threat of climate change in federal fisheries.

The resulting Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act would still need to pass Congress before taking effect. But if passed, it could have big implications for the way Alaska’s federal fisheries are managed.

“Anybody who is dependent on halibut is impacted by the language in this bill. Anybody who is dependent on salmon and interactions between salmon and pollock fishery, for example, is impacted by this bill,” said Marissa Wilson, of Homer, who directs the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

She said it’s important to keep the Magnuson-Stevens Act updated as the threats facing fisheries change in Alaska and beyond.

For example, the revisions included in the new bill would explicitly call out the effects of climate change on federal fisheries for the first time and would require regional councils to make plans to address those threats. Changes related to climate have played a large role in fisheries declines across the state, like the crash in cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska.

Linda Behnken with the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka said the acknowledgement of those effects is significant.

“I think it’s an important step in just highlighting how essential it is for fishery managers to build climate considerations into management of fisheries, since we are seeing such rapid change,” she said.

The act also adds two Alaska Native representatives to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — one of eight regional councils created by the original act to manage fishing in federal waters. Today, the council has 11 appointed voting members and four non-voting members from Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Alaska Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola advocated for those seats last year, when she testified in favor of the reauthorization in front of Congress as the executive director Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fish Commission. Her predecessor in the U.S. House, Republican Rep. Don Young, was a staunch advocate of renewing Magnuson-Stevens.

Peltola is now on the House committee that passed the revised act.

“The bill before us today makes great progress toward limiting the wasteful problem of bycatch — the destructive practice that hurts Alaskans who need the fish for sustenance,” she said in a hearing last week.

Bycatch is one of the most significant focuses of the rewrite.

Previous versions of Magnuson-Stevens said bycatch should be minimized in management plans “to the extent practicable.” That phrase is scratched from the updated version, essentially calling for the total elimination of bycatch.

That’s a sticking point for a large coalition of industry groups and fishermen — including the At-Sea Processors Association and the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation— who sent a letter to the House committee alleging the new version of the act is overly partisan and could throw the industry “into chaos.”

“For example, with very limited exceptions, bycatch is a reality in every commercial and recreational fishery,” the groups wrote. wrote. “A mandate to absolutely minimize bycatch in all circumstances … could very well lead to managers or the courts shutting down fisheries where bycatch cannot be eliminated.”

Wilson, with the conservation council, said she doesn’t think the act would create as much chaos as opponents suggest.

“What it does is it really signals, I think, to councils that reductions are really important — particularly here in the North Pacific,” Wilson said.

Even though the rewrite cleared the House committee, its path forward is anything but guaranteed.

Amendments proposed by Republicans in committee were shut down during the markups and the bill will have to make it through a split Congress before passing.

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