Criticism Plagues Legislative Approaches to Reauthorization of Fisheries Management Legislation

In a bi-partisan effort by two Alaskan senators, the Magnuson-Stevens Act was enacted in 1976 to promote domestic over international fishing, prevent overfishing, allow overfished stocks to recover, and to conserve and manage fishery resources.[i] The Act provided for regional fishery management councils to carry out its purpose as well as giving power to the Secretary of Commerce to oversee these councils. Most recently, The Act was amended in 2006, adding annual catch limits and providing for implementation of standards of environmental review outlined in the National Environmental Protection Act. At the end of fiscal year 2013, the reauthorization of the Act expired. Since then, both the House and Senate have made strides in reauthorization proposals and hearings. They have taken, however, drastically different approaches, some of which are highly criticized, and the chances for a timely bi-partisan reauthorization are looking slim.

In December 2013, House Natural Resource Committee Chair Doc Hastings (R- Wash.) introduced a bill draft that would increase “flexibility” in fishery council management by getting rid of the annual catch limits and environmental review standards added to the Act in 2006.[ii] The draft would also require that regional permit holders approve some management plans before they can move forward.[iii]

Hastings’ proposal has been criticized by both environmentalists and by House Democrats. The environmentalist argument is that many stocks have improved significantly since 2006 and there is no need to change what is working currently. Although increased flexibility may be positive in the sense that it promotes the power of regional councils deal with changing climate conditions and economic impacts, it may also lead to a lack of accountability for council leaders by removing hardline standards as a measuring tool for progress. Doing so would make it difficult to determine if leaders are being persuaded more by regional lobbyists in the fishing industry rather than sound scientific and economic policy. This scenario presents an opportunity in regional councils for power to shift from council leaders who currently rely on scientific and statistical evidence to influential stakeholders whose interests may not reflect what is best for the health of the fishery both ecologically and economically. For example, commercial fishers and recreational fishers may have more resources and lobbying to council leaders in the community than small fishers and environmental groups, which could result in an imbalance of power in the council.

House Democrats criticize the draft for not being a bi-partisan effort. After claiming to have been prevented from presenting witnesses at the initial draft hearing, they invoked a house rule that authorized the minority party to force a second hearing to present their witnesses. Peter DeFazio (D- Ore.) has been particularly outspoken on the issue of bi-partisan cooperation, saying that the second hearing is a chance to have a “balanced, real discussion on how we can improve existing law to protect our fisheries and allow them to flourish.”[iv] At the hearing, held on February 28, 2014, the House Democrats’ witnesses took special issue with the proposal to end annual catch limits and ten-year rebuilding goals, saying that this would damage the progress already made. Despite all of this criticism, it is important to remember that Hastings’s proposal is just a draft and the real bill has yet to be introduced.

In contrast to the House approach, Senate Subcommittee Chairman Mark Begich (D- Alaska) is trying to hear from all stakeholders across the country before he proposes any legislation. He reasons that, “We want to do it in a thoughtful way so it’s not just a reaction, but something that down the road, 10 years later, we can say we not only listened to the advice, we took it forward and improved on what was there at the time.”[v] Several hearings have been held since the 2006 reauthorization expired in the summer of 2013. Opinions range across regional councils and stakeholders. Some, like Alaska, have expressed interest in keeping the law as is because it has worked in their community. Others call for increased flexibility in management operations and freedom from the scientific and statistical committees created by the 2006 amendment to the Act, which council leaders are required to defer to on scientific and economic matters. Additionally, stakeholders such as recreational fishers have proposed amendments favoring their constituents. It has yet to be seen whether Senator Begich will be able to meld the hearing testimony into an efficient amendment/reauthorization that will appease both Senate Republicans and Democrats, although partisan politics seem to be less of an issue in the Senate. His bill is supposed to be released in late March 2014.

Given the variation in proposals and tactics by House and Senate, it appears as though there are several issues that will arise in the coming months. One is that the 2006 authorization expired more than six months ago, and there has yet to be a vote on legislation in either legislative body. As such, the state of fisheries management, which is crucial to ecological stability, international trade, and economic, is in flux with no sign of reprieve in the near future. The second issue is that the partisan policies influencing current reauthorization schemes are moving away from the original intent of the Act, which was a bipartisan effort to balance ecological and economic interests in fisheries management. Finally, even if the House or Senate can pass a bill on its own, they have adopted such different approaches in response to the expiration of the Acts authorization that more conflict will likely develop before any amendment is signed into law.

-Rachael Westmoreland is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at rwestmor@umich.edu

 


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] Applicable Laws: Magnuson-Stevens, Pacific Fishery management council (Aug. 12, 2010), http://www.pcouncil.org/resources/applicable-laws/magnuson-stevens-act/

[ii] Jessica Estepa, House Chairman’s Proposal Hit by Enviros, Industry, E&E News PM (Jan. 31, 2014), http://libproxy.law.umich.edu:2217/eenewspm/stories/1059993859/search?keyword=magnuson+stevens.

[iii] Jessica Estepa, Chairman’s Proposal for Magnuson-Stevens Update to Get Full Airing this week, E&E News PM (Feb. 3, 2014), http://libproxy.law.umich.edu:2217/eedaily/stories/1059993875/search?keyword=magnuson+stevens.

[iv] Jessica Estepa, Chairman’s Proposal for Magnuson-Stevens Update to Get Full Airing this week, E&E News PM (Feb. 3, 2014), http://libproxy.law.umich.edu:2217/eedaily/stories/1059993875/search?keyword=magnuson+stevens.

[v] Jessica Estepa, Chairman’s Proposal for Magnuson-Stevens Update to Get Full Airing this week, E&E News PM (Feb. 3, 2014), http://libproxy.law.umich.edu:2217/eedaily/stories/1059993875/search?keyword=magnuson+stevens.

 

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