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Bill Would Gut Nation's Fisheries Law

David Newman

Posted June 28, 2011

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In 2006, after years of chronic overfishing (see my recent blog on the history of overfishing in the South Atlantic), Congress amended the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) to require fishery managers to set science-based annual catch limits by the end of 2011, with accountability measures to ensure fishermen stay within those limits.  Now, just months away from the final round of these measures going into effect, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA), have introduced a bill named the “Fisheries Science Improvement Act of 2011” (H.R. 2304).  Despite its name, the bill would significantly weaken the MSA’s requirement to set science-based catch limits that could finally put our nation’s ocean fisheries on a path to long-term sustainability. 

NRDC strongly opposes this legislation.  If enacted into law, this bill would: 

  • Delay the deadline for setting science-based catch limits and accountability measures for the vast majority of federally-managed fish species, including some that remain overfished or are recovering from being overfished; 
  • Permanently exclude species from ever being subject to catch limits and accountability measures;
  • Reduce incentives for improving scientific knowledge regarding a majority of managed stocks; and
  • Undercut years of scientifically-sound progress and millions of tax dollars that have gone into the nearly-completed adoption of catch limits and accountability measures.

Claims by proponents of H.R. 2304 that catch limits cannot be set for fish species that have not recently had full stock assessments are flat out wrong.  All fish species managed under the MSA have some data – such as catch history, fishing effort over time, and/or life history characteristics – that scientists have shown are suitable for setting scientifically-sound catch limits.  This bill disregards these methods and their use to date by fishery managers around the country.  Furthermore, this bill creates a perverse incentive not to expand the use of stock assessments.  By subjecting these stocks to a lower standard of management, H.R. 2304 could actually reduce the likelihood that managers gather additional data that improves fisheries science for many important marine fish species. 

We are at a seminal moment in fisheries management, on the cusp of finally achieving the goal of sustainable fisheries that has eluded us for more than a generation.  During that time we have seen the disastrous consequences of overfishing, which has led to the decline of many commercially important species (as well as many less commercially-important, but still ecologically-critical ones).  Delaying or eliminating catch limits and accountability measures for so many species would undermine science, risk overfishing, and postpone or prevent rebuilding of depleted fish populations.

As mentioned above, H.R. 2304 would extend the deadline for setting science-based catch limits and accountability measures for the vast majority of federally-managed stocks.  This delay would even apply to stocks that remain overfished (e.g., Atlantic halibut, butterfish, canary rockfish, cowcod, and yelloweye rockfish) and many more that are no longer overfished, but still rebuilding to healthy populations levels (e.g., silver hake, bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific whiting).  Under H.R. 2304, some species could be entirely exempt from ever having science-based catch limits and accountability measures, including many types of Pacific rockfish and Southeastern snapper and grouper.

It is misleading to claim that we can somehow improve fisheries science and management by delaying or eliminating science-based catch limits and accountability measures.  Yet, this bill would do just that.  For the sake of restoring and maintaining healthy fish populations and the economically important fisheries that depend on them, we must stay the course with science-based fisheries management and reject these and similar efforts to turn back the clock.

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