By Richard Gaines
The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee is drafting "a comprehensive" change to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a fisheries management law, in an attempt to ensure that NOAA makes "informed decisions based on sufficient scientific information," Chairman Doc Hastings has told the Times.
Incorporating elements from a suite of eight bills vetted by the committee last December, the federal legislation has been in construction by committee staff for some time — before a national fishermen's rally at the Capitol last month and an April 3 letter to the committee from 21 House members. Those signers included John Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, and Barney Frank, whose district includes New Bedford.
A mix of about two dozen federal lawmakers of both parties and houses of Congress including Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, spoke to the rally of the need for writing flexibility into the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Along with rewriting parts of and writing inserts to Magnuson, the committee is reported to be struggling with the problem of trying to fix misinterpretations of the overriding fisheries management law by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Crystal Feldman, the committee press secretary, said some problems with fisheries management have been created by NOAA's interpretation of the law and not necessarily by the law itself, and that is harder to fix legislatively.
Similar complaints are at the core of a lawsuit initiated by the fishing ports of New Bedford and Gloucester and industry interests from Maine to North Carolina. That appeal is now before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
In a reply brief filed Wednesday, the plaintiffs wrote that NOAA considers the law "a moving target."
"Where ... Congress deliberately crafted mechanisms to protect fishermen, the agency is not free to implement regulations rendering those protections meaningless," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.
They are challenging the legality of the way NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council introduced a catch share management system to the Northeast groundfishery in 2010 without giving the affected fishermen a referendum, as the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson requires for limited access allocated fisheries.
NOAA has insisted Congress created an exception for the version of a catch share program crafted for the groundfishery.
The case could pivot on disputes over the intent of Congress when it directed NOAA to do social "and" economic impact studies of the new regimen on the region's fishing ports.
"It has been made very clear at several subcommittee hearings and the full committee hearing held late last year that reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act are needed," Hastings, R-Wash., wrote in an email to the Times.
Referring to the eight bills vetted before the Natural Resources Committee, Hastings added that "we are working to incorporate these amendments into one comprehensive bill that will modify the Magnuson-Stevens Act so that fish stocks remain plentiful while jobs and the commercial and recreational industries are protected.
"The committee will continue to work with representatives, the fishing industry and local communities as we move forward with legislation to improve the Magnuson-Stevens Act," Hastings said.
In his opening statement at the Dec. 1 committee hearing for the eight bills, Hastings said that NOAA and its regional councils were being "overly cautionary" in their hedging against uncertainty in setting "artificially low harvest levels."
In New England, Brian Rothschild, the distinguished academic and research scientist at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, told the rally at the Capitol last month excessively conservative buffers was costing New England fishermen 60,000 metric tons of fish a year. "Buffer guesswork costs the New England economy about $200 million at the dock," he said in prepared remarks.
Pushing the bill out of committee and through the House before Congress recesses for the summer run-up to the presidential and congressional elections is not assured, but with Democrats in the Senate majority, is about the best the Magnuson reformers are hoping for this year.
Green groups associated with Lubchenco oppose the effort. Congressman Edward Markey of Malden, the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, and NOAA leaders argue that Magnuson already allows sufficient flexibility from rigid 10-year rebuilding limits written into it.
"In evaluating the bills, we should consider whether each bill supports strong science in fisheries management and respects the regional expertise that makes councils the appropriate place for making decisions," Markey said in an email. "Current law already provides flexibility that is being used. Over 50 percent of stocks have rebuilding time lines over 10 years."
The main flexibility bills were filed by Democrat Frank Pallone and Republican Jon Runyan of New Jersey.
"Poor, outdated science, overly cautious decision-making and top-down flawed fishery management plans have all conspired to drive many of our struggling fishermen out of business and have damaged coastal economies," Runyan said in his testimony to the Natural Resources Committee."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or firstname.lastname@example.org.