July 25, 2013 –  Even Rip Cunningham supports Magnuson flexibility!

That’s the message heard by members of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard in a July 23 hearing looking at New England and Mid Atlantic region perspectives on the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  It’s also a message greatly appreciated by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) which has spent the past 7 years trying to build support for reforming the federal fisheries law to provide a better balance of commerce, conservation and access for recreational fishermen.

In opening testimony from a three-member panel of fisheries managers, a common theme was that changes made in the 2006/2007 reauthorization of the Act have had a major impact on the socioeconomic state of both commercial and recreational fisheries in the Northeast region, and not all of it good.

“When reauthorized in 2007, the Act gave the eight Regional Fishery Management Councils (Councils) and NMFS a very clear charge and some new tools to support improved science and management,” said John Bullard, Northeast Regional Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  “While significant progress has been made since the last reauthorization, we recognize that this progress has not come without a cost.”

Among the initiatives included in the reauthorization of Magnuson, Bullard noted specifically how the law “mandated the use of science-based annual catch limits and accountability measures to prevent and end overfishing, provided for market-based fishery management through Limited Access Privilege Programs or catch shares, focused on collaborative research with the fishing industry and bycatch reduction, (and) addressed the need to improve the science used to inform fisheries management.”

“Managing fisheries using annual catch limits and accountability measures was a major change for some fisheries, and the initial implementation has identified some areas where we can improve that process,” Bullard noted in his testimony, adding “The U.S. now has effective tools to address marine fisheries management, and as we look to the future, we must look for opportunities to increase flexibility in our management system.”

Rick Robins, Chairman of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) noted that the recreational fishing community is highly diverse and includes not only private anglers, but also for-hire vessels in the party/charter fleet whose business interests may reflect different values and regulatory preferences than the commercial sector.  Robins told the Committee that during recent outreach sessions with members of the public, anglers have asked for reasonable access to fishing opportunities and greater regulatory stability.

“Enhancing the stability of our fisheries is one of our top strategic priorities,” Robins said, adding “we’ve just submitted an Omnibus amendment that would frame our recreational accountability measures in such a way that it would take the statistical uncertainty into account.” The recent vote by Robins and the entire MAFMC would remove accountability measures (AM’s) like general in-season closure authority from NOAA Fisheries and halt implementation of recreational payback on healthy fish stocks, a move viewed by RFA as a benchmark decision for other regional fisheries councils to follow.

“We would suggest leaving room in the Act for some flexibility in recreational AM’s,” Robins said of the congressional efforts to reauthorize Magnuson.

Explaining how the system established by Magnuson has helped end overfishing in MAFMC managed stocks while leading to rebuilt stocks, Robins told Congress that “the next authorization should build on that success but should do so in broader terms than simply just preventing overfishing.”

When asked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) if the Magnuson Stevens Act should be revised to offer greater flexibility in rebuilding timelines for fisheries, Robins said personally that he felt that some “targeted flexibility” would be beneficial at the council level.

“A lot of times stock growth and rebuilding hinges on environmental conditions that facilitate recruitment and growth into that population to the extent that those environmental variables are outside of our control,” Robins said.  “I think it would be helpful to have some flexibility to deal with those types of changing and adverse environmental circumstances when a council is trying to rebuild a stock.”

Rip Cunningham, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) noted that with little ability to predict and no ability to control the environmental changes that are key drivers in the rebuilding progress, “we think management should focus on ending overfishing and not arbitrary rebuilding timeframes.”

“The New England Council feels that the focus should be on preventing overfishing, not on a set rebuilding timeline,” said Cunningham, formerly a loud and vocal critic of efforts to amend the portion of Magnuson-Stevens to address the arbitrary rebuilding deadlines.  “We don’t have the scientific information that’s exact enough to allow us to rebuild to that set time period.”

In response to the question from Sen. Rubio, Cunningham said “The Council would be supportive of an effort to offer greater flexibility with regards to how we view the timelines,” adding “that is the Council’s position.”

RFA executive director Jim Dononfrio said that Senate committee members should be able to take a lot of good information from the first witness panel in Tuesday’s hearing.  “As I once told Sen. Ted Stevens himself, the accountability measures in the recreational community are like double jeopardy restrictions.  We are given a bag, size and season limit by fisheries managers to restrict our catch, and then when the data shows that it was unsuccessful in containing harvest, managers punish anglers a second time.”

When the MAFMC voted on new omnibus measures in June, Council member Steve Heins of New York noted specifically that if managers set regulations that are not successful in constraining harvest, then perhaps, “the managers should be punished and not the fishermen.”

At the time of the vote, Bullard himself noted specifically the word’s of MAFMC member Tony Dilernia (NY) that the federal government may actually be closing down the 2014 black sea bass fishery because the stock is simply too healthy. “So I’m scratching my head saying we’re closing the fishery ‘cause there’s too many fish, so that doesn’t make sense, right?” Bullard noted in December, adding “in 2014 that’s what we’d be doing, and so this is the problem we have to solve.”

Donofrio said it’s regrettable that the Senate Committee members in Washington only got half the story at the hearing.

“In the last reauthorization of Magnuson, with the help of democrats and republicans in the House, along with New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, Congress increased the deadline for summer flounder rebuilding by 3 years from 2010 to 2013,” said Donofrio.  “That deadline flexibility allowed anglers to continue fishing over the past five seasons while the stock itself has flourished.”

“Meanwhile, the AM restrictions mandated by Magnuson have threatened to shut down a healthy, sustainable and rebuilt black sea bass fishery, so obviously the law is in need of repair,” Donofrio said, adding “Hopefully the next time this Senate committee meets they’ll take into consideration the input of vested, full-time industry professionals from the recreational for-hire and tackle industry.”