HR 4742 Is Good For Fish, Fishermen & The Recreational Fishing Industry

While a fair number of conservation and fishing groups were “underwhelmed” by efforts of Congress to improve the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Jim Hutchinson of the Recreational Fishing Alliance sees more good than bad in the bill. Here’s his take as published in The Fishing Wire on June 11, 2014.

The Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (HR 4742) introduced by House Natural Resources committee Chair Doc Hastings (R-WA) is an effort to improve and strengthen provisions of the current Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).

In the days since this bill successfully moved out of committee, scores of recreational fishermen and industry professionals have reached out to the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) for perspective. Having lobbied for 7 years to incorporate some limited management flexibility in the law while highlighting the bureaucratic problems with meeting restrictive congressional mandates using “fatally flawed” data, RFA sees HR 4742 as a terrific step towards addressing many of the problems faced by saltwater anglers today.

One portion of the bill would allow an extension to the time required to rebuild a fish stock beyond the existing 10-year requirement in certain cases. This language is similar to rebuilding language included in legislation previously introduced and supported by the RFA, except that HR 4742 does not include limits on the length of the rebuilding extension.

“We have always argued that the arbitrary deadlines created by Congress didn’t make sense for rebuilding periods, but RFA never supported open-ended rebuilding time frames either,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “There are, however, existing provisions in Magnuson Stevens related to ending overfishing that pretty clearly protects the fish stocks while allowing this deadline flexibility.”

RFA has argued against the rigid and inflexible nature of fixed rebuilding deadlines since the last reauthorization of Magnuson Stevens, when a three-year extension in the summer flounder rebuilding deadline was plugged into the law in the 11th hour to address a rapidly approaching deadline for that Atlantic Coast fishery. The three-year extension proved that fisheries could be rebuilt with a little bit of management flexibility while anglers continued to access a fishery.

“The fisheries management councils are now asking for this flexibility, and after dozens of hearings in the House Natural Resources Committee, members now understand the need for change,” Donofrio said.

HR 4742 would also make modifications to allow the regional fishery management councils to set ‘annual catch limits’ in consideration of changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of fishing communities. It would also permit councils to set multiyear annual catch limits to afford some stability in recreational specifications. RFA explains that this section is important given that there is no data collection program in existence today that can estimate recreational landings on a level accurate enough to reasonably apply annual catch limits to the recreational sector.

“The methodologies used by NOAA Fisheries were designed to show trends over multiple years and broad geographic ranges, which is precisely why RFA has argued for exemptions in the recreational sector from enforcement of these annual catch limits as written under the present law,” said Donofrio.

Under this portion of the bill, regional councils could exercise some flexibility in setting annual catch limits in the recreational sector, which could assist our beleaguered red snapper fishermen in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. In specifically addressing the red snapper issue, Rep. Hastings’ bill also directs federal funding through the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act towards development and implementation of a real-time reporting and data collection program for Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

“The data collection problem is horrible, and the Hastings bill would make use of existing federal funding to improve data-poor fisheries in the Gulf and South Atlantic,” Donofrio added. “There’s also a section of HR 4742 to extend the seawards boundary of coastal states in the Gulf out to 9 miles for the purposes of managing the recreational red snapper fishery and allowing states to make better local decisions based on their own data collection.”

As referenced above with regard to the open-endedness of timelines along with other issues, Donofrio said the Hastings bill is good but not perfect. “There’s a piece that gives the Secretary of Commerce the ability to increase the length of emergency regulations and interim measures from 180 days to 365 days–that’s a free ticket to declare fisheries closed without public participation and input,” he explained.

However, having spent the past 7 years pushing Congress to consider legislation to incorporate limited management flexibility in the law, RFA is hopeful for change despite trepidation by some members of the recreational fishing industry. “I know some members of the community are adamant for example that Magnuson-Stevens includes a national policy for recreational fishing, but NOAA Fisheries is presently working to create a national policy so let’s not bog that down in a broken congress,” Donofrio said.

Another debate has emerged of late with regard to something known as ‘ecosystem-based’ fisheries management, specifically managing those ecosystems for forage base. While Donofrio said anglers may understand ecosystems and bait, putting that onus on Congress to define the terms for NOAA Fisheries to follow is another bureaucratic logjam waiting to happen.

“Imagine if the folks at Pew or Oceana decide that there may be special corals at your favorite sea bass or red snapper reef, next thing you know you’re not allowed to fish on that particular ecosystem,” Donofrio said.

Some of the Pew-supported groups have tabbed the Hastings bill as the ’empty oceans act’ claiming the legislation will roll back vital conservation measures necessary for healthy and sustainable fisheries, which Donofrio calls gross exaggeration.

“RFA’s team of experts, scientists, policy professionals and attorneys looked at HR 4742 very closely, and they see this legislation as addressing 80 to 90 percent of what’s at stake for our recreational fishing community right now.”

“If we could get together and get 80 percent of what we need in a bill to get fishermen fishing again, in this congress, we should do it,” he added. “Even with HR 4742 missing some industry wish list items, this is a bill worth supporting.”

With key amendments added to the Hastings bill by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), there’s a lot to be excited about with HR 4742; but now comes the tough part getting the House and Senate together on a conference bill which the President can sign into law which will truly benefit the fish, the fishermen and the fishing industry.