Legislators, special interests debate Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Plans to update the guiding document of national fishing policy has caused a scrutinizing debate of whether science would have a lesser role in proposed changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA.

Rep. Don Young, R-Arkansas, introduced House Resolution 200 (H.R. 200) in January to reauthorize the MSA. The bill proposed revisions for management plans of overfished fisheries and catch limit requirements.

Young’s bill would make a few changes to the MSA, such as replacing “overfished” with “depleted” throughout the act and requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to publish its plan for implementing its Cooperative Research and Management Program.

Other proposed changes include the extension of offshore jurisdictions in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and a requirement for NOAA to conduct stock assessments for all fish covered by the MSA’s fishery management plan.

“NOAA must develop guidelines that will incorporate data from private entities into fishery management plans,” according to the language of H.R. 200.

The proposal was most recently considered in a Sept. 26 hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans.

H.R. 200, however, received pushback from conservation and science organizations. Conservationists and scientists have urged legislators to ensure fact-based research continues to reign in the management of the nation’s fisheries.

A contingency of 200 scientists signed off on an Oct. 23 letter to Congress, urging opposition to H.R. 200 and similar legislation “that would weaken science-based management of U.S. marine fish populations.”

“H.R. 200 will weaken the MSA’s successful recovery of depleted fish populations by establishing broad loopholes that effectively eliminate the requirement for managers to set reasonable and scientifically based rebuilding timelines,” the Oct. 23 letter stated. “Decades of fisheries science [show] that in order to succeed in rebuilding overfished stocks, managers must implement strong and timely management measures based on sound science.”

The coalition of scientists added the bill would exempt fishery management plans from cornerstone environmental laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act, do away with science-based annual catch limits and chip away at accountability measures.

Young’s bill would make a few changes to the MSA, such as replacing “overfished” with “depleted” throughout the act and requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to publish its plan for implementing its Cooperative Research and Management Program.

Other proposed changes include the extension of offshore jurisdictions in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and a requirement for NOAA to conduct stock assessments for all fish covered by the MSA’s fishery management plan.

“NOAA must develop guidelines that will incorporate data from private entities into fishery management plans,” according to the language of H.R. 200.

The proposal was most recently considered in a Sept. 26 hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans.

Members of a U.S. Senate’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee held a hearing, Oct. 24, on MSA reauthorization and fisheries science, with four witnesses – three academics and a researcher – testifying about the merits of H.R. 200.

Michigan State University professor Michael Jones, for example, warned against the incorporation of a one-size-fit-all policy into the MSA, particularly since the policy covers about 4.4 million miles of ocean.

“There is merit – and evidence to support this – considering scientifically defensible flexibility in things like rebuilding plan expectations, for example related to species life histories. A ‘one-size fits all’ approach to fisheries management does not work well, and risks managing some fisheries overly conservatively while others suffer from regulations that are too liberal,” Jones, founding director of Michigan State’s Quantitative Fisheries Center, said in his Senate subcommittee testimony.

Jones did acknowledge MSA’s positive impact on marine life, pointing out how the policy helped rebuild 39 overfished stocks and increased fish stock sustainability by 98 percent since 2000.

Still he and others stated more work must be done under the MSA to ensure past successes aren’t for naught.

Sea State Inc. founder Karl Haflinger said data infrastructure must be modernized if the MSA is to continue being an impactful policy guidance document.

University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn, meanwhile, said U.S. federal fisheries policy should continue looking to the science community for guidance and recommendations on harvesting in the face of new threats.

“The major threats to U.S. fish stock and marine ecosystem biodiversity are now ocean acidification, warming temperatures, degraded coastal habitats, exotic species, land based runoff, and pollution,” Hilborn said in his testimony. “Overfishing remains a concern for a limited number of stocks but should not continue to be the most important concern for US federal fisheries policy.”

NOAA photo

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