The Face of the Modern Fish Act, Revealed

Recreational anglers at sunset

For more than six months, representatives of the recreational fishing industry and various anglers’ rights organizations have been telling recreational fishermen to support something that they call the “Modern Fish Act,” a bill more formally known as H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017M (Act).

Like one of those miraculous diets that are sometimes pitched on TV, which let you eat anything you want and still lose weight, such folks have tried to convince anglers that the Act would let them harvest more fish, while also promoting conservation.

But just like those fanciful diets, the Act just can’t work as advertised.

Dieters have a choice: They can eat a lot of high-calorie foods, or they can lose weight. Anglers must make a similar decision: They can take fewer fish home, and see greater abundance, or they can take more fish home and see abundance decline. But they can’t have higher kills and higher abundance at the same time. Not in the long term.

Given that choice, the Act’s supporters choose higher kills.

That became evident last summer, after they convinced the Commerce Department to reopen the recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, a move that the agency itself admitted “may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years” and “will necessarily mean that that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.”

Despite the fact that such reopening would lead to overfishing and substantially delay the recovery of the overfished red snapper stock, it was praised by the Act’s proponents. The American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, said that the reopening would “improve recreational access” to the red snapper fishery.

It seems that, for supporters of the Act, “overfishing” is what happens when commercial fishermen kill more fish than the stock can tolerate in the long term; it’s something to be both avoided and condemned. But when recreational fishermen kill more than the stock can sustain, it’s deemed “improved access;” it’s something to be both desired and celebrated.

Thus, when Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, says that the Act “will ensure that all Americans have fair and reasonable access to our nation’s marine resources,” there’s reason for conservationists and responsible anglers to be very concerned, despite his contention that “America’s sportsmen are the original conservationists, and we fully recognize the importance of keeping healthy, robust stocks of fish and game.”

Such concerns were justified on December 13, 2017, when the House Committee on Natural Resources (Committee) marked up fifteen bills, including H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act. Significantly, the Committee did not schedule a markup of the Act, H.R. 2023; instead, at the request of the Act’s proponents, some of its provisions were instead incorporated into H.R. 200.

That request made it perfectly clear that the Act, and its supporters, are not concerned with conservation at all.

H.R. 200, as originally introduced in the House of Representatives early in 2017, is the most recent incarnation of legislation that has been introduced in each of the last few sessions of Congress. Its most immediate predecessor was H.R. 1335, a bill of the same name and substantially the same provisions, which was passed by the House in 2015, but died in committee in the Senate. Before that, there was Rep. Doc Hastings’ (R-Washington) H.R. 4742, which bore the same name as H.R. 200 and H.R. 1335, and also shared the same goal: weakening the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States.

H.R. 4742 was so bad that it earned the nickname “Empty Oceans Act” from those concerned with the health of the nation’s fish stocks. Alexandra Adams of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote that Rep. Hastings’ bill:

“would take us back to a time before the successes of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and to when fish populations—and the fishermen that depended on them—were in dire straits. [It] adds loopholes, waters down legal standards, encourages costly delays, and reduces transparency and accountability. The draft guts the rebuilding requirements that forced managers to make tough decisions that allowed our stocks to rebound, including by removing requirements for rebuilding guidelines…The theme of this…bill is definitely flexibility: the flexibility to fish until there is nothing left…It limits the authority of scientists to set science based annual catch limits…[It] attacks vital bedrock environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Antiquities Act”…Compliance with NEPA is eliminated entirely…”

Despite his approach to fisheries conservation and management issues, the Center for Sportfishing Policy (then known as the Center for Coastal Conservation) once named Rep Hastings its “Conservationist of the Year,” which strongly suggests that its definitions of “conservation” and “conservationist” fall well outside of the mainstream.

H.R. 200, as marked up by the committee, contains most of the same flaws as did H.R. 4742. Like Rep. Hastings’ bill, it does away with the requirement that fish stocks be rebuilt, if possible, in no more than 10 years; like the earlier bill, it includes a long list of loopholes to its relaxed rebuilding timelines. Like Rep. Hastings’ bill, it restricts scientists’ ability to set annual catch limits and permits managers to employ “alternative” management measures that avoid such limits altogether. It attacks a host of environmental laws, and it eliminates the need to subject fisheries regulations to NEPA review.

In all, H.R 200 is bad enough that members of the conservation community have deemed it “another ‘Empty Oceans Act,'” a title that it certainly deserves.

So what did the Act’s proponents get for supporting Empty Oceans?

They saw some provisions of their Act incorporated into H.R. 200. A number of those provisions were related to red snapper, particularly those in the Gulf of Mexico. One provision would affect the data used to manage the stock; another threatens the catch share program that successfully ended commercial overfishing of Gulf red snapper ten years ago (while anglers continue to chronically overfish). A third would require the National Marine Fisheries Service to regularly re-examine the allocations of fish between the commercial and recreational sectors—but only in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic regions, where the red snapper live; anglers governed by other regional fishery management councils must content themselves with the status quo.

There were some other provisions incorporated as well, which would provide additional exceptions to the annual catch limit requirement, allow more and potentially questionable data to be incorporated into stock assessments and require stocks to be assessed more frequently—provided that there was a need and money available to do so.

But the one thing that was not included in H.R. 200 is anything clearly intended to promote conservation. The bill, true to its “Empty Oceans Act” moniker, is uniquely designed to increase harvests while reducing fishery managers’ ability to rebuild and conserve fish stocks.

The American Sportfishing Association is calling H.R. 200 “Landmark legislation to benefit saltwater anglers.”

The Coastal Conservation Association concurs, while the Center for Sportfishing Policy announced, in a telling remark, that “This is a major step forward in implementing the vision set forth by the Morris-Deal Report for the future of saltwater recreational fishing.”

That remark laid clear what many anglers already knew, that despite all the rhetoric, the Morris-Deal Report—formally, the report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” and released under the aegis of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership—was never about conservation at all, as its authors claimed, but instead about recreational fishermen killing more fish, and escaping the science-based regulations of Magnuson-Stevens.

Because that is exactly what H.R. 200 is designed to let them, and commercial fishermen, do.

Thus, it was a blatant lie, and an affront to its readers’ intelligence, when an industry publication, The Fishing Wire, announced that “Conservationists support advance of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization,” as it hailed the Committee’s approval of H.R. 200, since conservationists don’t support H.R. 200 at all.

H.R. 200 is supported by the same people who supported the Act, the same people who have long sought more fish for themselves and fewer regulations to protect the resource.

The same people that conservationists must oppose at every turn, if we are to have oceans that are healthy—and full.

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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