S. 1520: The Trojan Horse

Trojan Horse

Fisheries bill could pave the way for harmful reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act

For well over a year, anglers and federal legislators have been the targets of a sophisticated and very well-funded public relations effort designed to convince them to support the so-called “Modern Fish Act,” a bill that would weaken key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) in order to increase recreational harvest.

Modern Fish Act supporters claim that the legislation could accomplish many of their goals, including “allowing alternative management for recreational fishing, reexamining fisheries allocations, smartly rebuilding fishery stocks, establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit and improving recreational data collection.”

The problem is that no bill currently moving through Congress will do what the Modern Fish Act supporters describe, although there is pending legislation that would either fall far short of meeting those goals or damage the current federal fishery management system far more than Modern Fish Act proponents are willing to admit.

That wasn’t always the case. When the Modern Fish Act effort was publicly launched in 2017, it involved two similar bills, H.R. 2023, introduced by Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), in the House of Representatives, and S. 1520, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), in the Senate. Both bills were titled the “Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act of 2017,” and both arguably advanced the goals of Modern Fish Act supporters.

Although the language of the bills differed somewhat, the differences were small enough that no one doubted that they could be reconciled in a conference committee composed of House and Senate members, with the result being a compromise that was, on balance, very similar to the original legislation.

Today, the situation is very different.

S. 1520, the Senate version of the Modern Fish Act, was marked up on February 28 of this year, and formally reported out of committee on June 5. However, the version of S. 1520 that emerged from the committee mark-up was very different from the bill that had originally been introduced.

According to the official committee report on S. 1520, the bill would now

“Direct Fishery Management Councils (Councils) to review allocations to commercial and recreational fishing sectors every 5 years.

“Clarify that the Councils [already] have the authority to use certain fishery management measures in a recreational fishery in developing a management plan or proposed regulation.

“Authorize Councils to establish annual catch limits for multispecies complexes or annual limits for each year in a 3-year period.

“Direct the Secretary of Commerce to develop a report to Congress on facilitating greater incorporation of data, analysis, stock assessments, and surveys from State agencies and non-governmental sources…”

While the current version of S. 1520 would require a reexamination of the allocation of fishery resources and has a chance, depending on the conclusions reached in the proposed report by the Secretary of Commerce, of improving fisheries data, it would no longer materially affect the establishment of annual catch limits or the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks.

In fact, that version contains a “Rule of Construction” section, making it clear that current provisions that prohibit overfishing, hold sectors accountable if they do overfish, and require the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks will not be affected by the bill.

Thus, S. 1520 has been largely rendered harmless; its provisions are now more of a nuisance, which place unnecessary burdens on the fishery management process, than they are a direct threat to science-based fishery management and the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.

Ironically, that’s exactly what now makes S. 1520 so dangerous.

To understand why, it’s necessary to look at what happened with the Modern Fish Act in the House.

Despite all of the hyperbole that accompanied its introduction, H.R. 2023, the Modern Fish Act bill first introduced in the House of Representatives, never got off the ground. It was referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans where, after hearings were held in September 2017, the bill effectively died.

Normally, that would be good news. But in the case of the Modern Fish Act, it’s not good news at all.

That’s because there is another fishery bill that’s active and alive in the House. It’s a full-fledged Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization bill, H.R. 200, titled the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which was introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).

H.R. 200, as introduced, didn’t propose any ideas that Congress hadn’t seen, and chose not to adopt, before. It is substantially the same bill as H.R 1335, which bore the same title when Rep. Young introduced it during the 113th Congress, and not very different from H.R. 4742, another identically-named piece of legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) in the 112th.

It is a very bad bill. In fact, it is such a bad bill that after Rep. Young introduced the essentially identical H.R. 1335 in the previous legislative session, he felt that he had to assure his constituents that the bill wouldn’t harm their fisheries, writing that

“My legislation…will not change the way the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] manages our fisheries. Alaska fishermen and the communities they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fishery resources and the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions. Regardless of the changes proposed to [Magnuson-Stevens], the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to utilize innovative practices to be leaders in fisheries management… [emphasis added]”

In other words, H.R. 1335, and thus its successor, H.R. 200, was only drafted for the rubes down in the Lower 48 who don’t know any better, and not for Alaskans who need and value healthy and sustainable fisheries.

When the primary sponsor of a bill starts talking like that about his own creation, it’s not hard to figure out that the bill is no good.

Unfortunately, H.R. 200, unlike H.R. 2023, was marked up and favorably reported out of committee. So unlike H.R. 2023, it remains very much alive and very much a threat to Magnuson-Stevens and the health of fish stocks.

What makes H.R. 200 a particular threat is that, during the markup process, it was amended to include language from the Modern Fish Act. Given H.R. 2023’s failure to get out of committee, H.R. 200 is now the de facto Modern Fish Act bill in the House.

And that’s where the tie to S. 1520 comes in.

Should S. 1520 pass in the Senate, there will be no companion bill of similarly limited scope that has been passed by the House, and that could be referred to conference with S. 1520.

Instead, assuming that both bills are passed, S. 1520 will be sent to conference with H.R. 200, thus largely cutting the Senate, lately the more reasoned and deliberative body with respect to fisheries issues, out of the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization debate. The entire intricate process of drafting a Senate bill, which could be shaped by a bipartisan process, the committee discussions and markup and the debate on the floor would all be lost. The terms of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization would instead be decided by a handful of Senators and representatives meeting together and largely out of the public eye.

Thus, when anglers and Congressmen hear the blandishments of Modern Fish Act supporters, and pleas to “Pass the Modern Fish Act,” they must understand that they are being told only a small part of the story, while the greater truth is concealed.

Instead of being an end in itself, S. 1520, the only true Modern Fish Act bill still in play, is being used as a Trojan Horse that, if passed, will open the doors wide for H.R. 200, a full reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, and a rollback of many of that law’s most important provisions.

The federal fishery management system, America’s fish stocks and America’s fishermen would suffer badly as a result.

S. 1520 is not a terrible bill. But if it passes, a terrible bill could easily become law.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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