On Monday, December 7, the House Natural Resources Committee held an oversight field hearing in Riverhead, New York. Entitled “Restoring Atlantic Fisheries and Protecting the Regional Seafood Economy,” it illuminated the debate surrounding reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).
The Committee had already approved H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which was passed by the House last spring; the hearing was held in New York at the request of Rep. Lee Zeldin, a freshman Republican and an avowed opponent of the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.
The majority of the witnesses were opponents of such provisions, too. Even so, more than one of them unwittingly praised Magnuson-Stevens while doing their best to condemn it.
Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fisheries Alliance, set the tone in his opening statement.
“Prior to the modern advent of environmental organizations…fishermen assumed the function of advocate, scientist, manager, and conservationist long before these roles were defined in the modern fisheries management…”
That’s probably why summer flounder abundance fell to the lowest level ever recorded in 1989, when biologists had trouble finding fish that had managed to survive for more than two years, black sea bass were probably overfished from 1996 through 2002 and scup spawning stock biomass flatlined below 25,000 metric tons from at least 1984 (and perhaps earlier) through 2000.
And that’s also probably why, even after the Magnuson-Stevens Act, as amended in 1996, required that managers end overfishing and rebuild stocks within a time certain, the fishermen who dominated the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council still created a summer flounder management plan that had an 80% chance of failure in 1999.
As Mr. Donofrio words suggest, management didn’t improve until the “environmental organizations” stepped in, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over that summer flounder plan, and a federal court declared that
“Only in Superman Comics Bizarro world, where reality is turned upside down, could the [National Marine Fisheries] Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed offers ‘a fairly high level of confidence.”
That court decision finally gave the Magnuson-Stevens Act real legal teeth. As a result, the age and size structure of today’s summer flounder stock has markedly improved; by the end of 2014, the summer flounder spawning stock was nearly eight times larger than it was in 1989. The black sea bass stock was fully rebuilt by 2009, while scup have grown so abundant that their biomass is now twice the number needed to produce maximum sustainable yield.
Even so, Mr. Donofrio refused to give Magnuson-Stevens credit for all of the good that it had done. Instead, he made the incredible claim that “Magnuson is not working,” and praised H.R. 1335.
The testimony of Bonnie Brady, Executive Director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, was marked by the same disconnect.
She began by rightly noting that
“Federally, our commercial fish stocks are in very good shape. Of the 308 commercially caught (230 of which represent 90 percent of all commercial landings) stocks, 84% are not overfished and 92% overfishing is not occurring, while 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000.”
But then she, too, failed to give due credit to Magnuson-Stevens, and instead also supported H.R. 1335, saying
“Nothing has destroyed our New York fish economies more than the unintended consequences of a rigid, ten-year timeline for rebuilding a fishery to a supposed Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) level that does not take into account the economic effect on fishing communities that must suffer these cuts, and the cumulative effect when more than one fishery is in need of rebuilding.”
Like Mr. Donofrio, she supports a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that would, as Mr. Donofrio’s says,
“allow for long-term sustainability, rebuilding and improved access [“improved access” being a euphemism for larger harvests] without compromising conservation goals.”
Unfortunately, such legislation resembles a diet that allows folks to eat steak and eggs for breakfast, pizza for lunch and a pound of pasta—plus sausage—for dinner, and still lose a few pounds, in one important respect. Neither one exists in the real world.
That point was emphasized by Capt. Patrick Paquette of Hyannis, Massachusetts, a hometown that has made Capt. Paquette an eyewitness to what the sort of “flexibility in fisheries management” proposed by supporters of H.R. 1335 can do to a fishery. In his testimony to the Committee, Capt. Paquette firmly declared that
“Flexibility failed America’s oldest fishery…
“No clearer example of this exists than what [the New England Fishery Management Council] & [the National Marine Fisheries Service] did when a stock assessment in 2011/2012 confirmed what some fishermen had been saying for a few years; there was an ongoing and significant decline of our nation’s oldest fishery, Gulf of Maine cod (GOM cod). Management decisions took advantage of existing flexibility within [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] to push back mandatory rebuilding timelines; initiate interim measures that delayed and lessened the immediate impact of reduced catch limits and conduct a previously unscheduled back-to-back stock assessment to corroborate the decline.
“Ultimately, however, these allegedly creative ways to use existing flexibility within [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] once again delayed needed rebuilding of the stock and merely paved the way for quotas so small that recreational harvest of GOM cod was shut down for all of 2015, because the recreational quota of 30% of the annual catch limit was used up by discard mortality that occurs when fishing for other species. This use of the existing flexibility under [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] seemed eerily familiar to the failed management practices of the past.
“…The evidence shows that increased flexibility, whether it is for GOM cod, summer flounder, or other valuable species will not provide the sustained fishing opportunities our fishermen and communities need. Many small boat commercial and nearly all recreational fishermen that rely on GOM Cod and other iconic species will respectfully urge you to be careful what you might ask for when it comes to flexibility. Flexibility Failed GOM cod.”
Thus, in the testimony of just three of the witnesses, we find the underlying truths in the Magnuson-Stevens debate.
At one time, “fishermen assumed the function of advocate, scientist, manager, and conservationist long before these roles were defined in the modern fisheries management.”
And fish stocks crashed.
In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Act was amended by the addition of strong conservation and rebuilding provisions. As a result, “Federally, our commercial fish stocks are in very good shape. Of the 308 commercially caught…stocks, 84% are not overfished and 92% overfishing is not occurring, while 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000.”
Despite such clear success, some fishermen want Magnuson-Stevens to be weakened, by introducing greater “flexibility” to the management process.
But “Flexibility Failed GOM cod.”