The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee began the lengthy process of hearings Wednesday, leading to an intended update of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s primary law for managing the nation’s fisheries, with widespread consensus among witnesses on the need for better and more timely scientific stock assessments.
But among three Massachusetts congressmen — including the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Ed Markey — there was no consensus on the need for a rewrite of the law to give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more flexibility in writing rebuilding plans for overfished species.
In written statements to the committee, Congressmen John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and William Keating, who represents Cape Cod and the ports along Massachusetts Bay, both underscored the need for greater flexibility. These views were in line with those of retired Congressman Barney Frank, who represented New Bedford before deciding against running again last November in a reconfigured district that did not include that port city.
Markey — who avoided the issue of flexibility in prepared opening comments, and instead hammered the Republicans for blocking fisheries disaster funding for the Northeast groundfishery at the end of the last session — made clear in a statement to the Times last week that he believed Magnuson was sufficiently flexible.
”It is flexible enough that when Massachusetts fishermen and elected officials including myself asked for carryover of unused quota from this year to next, the answer was yes,” he said in an email last week. Markey, of Malden, is dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and his district includes the coastal communities of Revere and Winthrop
“It is flexible enough that when my colleagues and I requested that NOAA cover the cost of at-sea observers, the answer was yes,:” he wrote. “It is flexible enough that over half of the fish stocks managed in U.S. waters have rebuilding timelines longer than the act’s baseline 10-year horizon. It is even flexible enough to authorize the declaration of fishery economic disasters, making affected communities eligible to receive federal relief finds in their time of need.
“What fishermen need now is funding to help them weather these tough times, a better understanding of what is happening with fish stocks and the sea they swim in, and additional ways to connect the scientists directly with the fishing community so they can exchange knowledge and solutions,” Markey added. “Magnuson currently allows all of those things to occur, but we need a commitment from Republicans in Congress and concerned stakeholders to ensure that we can help our fishermen now and in the future.”
Tierney, Keating and Frank have argued that the language in Magnuson that requires 10-year rebuilding schedules for allegedly overfished stocks, when combined with hard catch limits, have been largely responsible for the dramatic cuts in catch limits for the 2013 fishing year which go into effect May 1 and have sent the groundfishing industry into a death spiral, with most fishermen anticipating the end of their business careers.
“I certainly agree with those who believe we must increase flexibility and stability for fishermen, while maintaining healthy fish stocks,” Tierney said in a letter to the committee Chairman, Republican Doc Hastings of Washington state. “It is also imperative to insure that any limitations placed on allowable catch be based on peer-reviewed stock assessments undertaken in the preceding year.”
Tierney added that “further flexibility must be given to rebuilding timelines in order to appropriately take into consideration effects on stocks other than commercial and recreational fishermen, such as environmental changes and their impact on marine ecosystems.”
Keating followed a similar tact in his letter to Hastings.
“Now is the time to prioritize maximizing harvests of healthy species, finding further flexibility in the act’s arbitrary ten-year rebuilding requirement, and improving management of areas that are closed to fishing. Keating wrote. “Furthermore, it is imperative that the Magnuson-Stevens Act take into account the full social and economic impact of existing and future regulations on local communities.
Markey, a leading candidate for the U.S. Senate seat vacated last month by John Kerry following his confirmation to be secretary of state, emphasized the need for more frequent stock assessments in his largely partisan opening remarks.
“Changing the Magnuson-Stevens Act cannot create more fish,” Markey said in prepared opening remarks. “Changing it cannot create additional science to inform fisheries management and build healthy stocks. Inadequate funding for science makes poor management and failing fisheries a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not funding disaster relief makes certain that fishing families will suffer.
“House Republican leaders have also rejected calls for increased funding to improve the scientific understanding of our fisheries and oceans,” he added. “Rather than helping to find real solutions to deal with climate change, many have denied its existence. Instead, they have backed budgets that undercut science, and offered alternatives to the sequester that would have cut science even more to spare the Pentagon’s bloated budget.”
The lack of science behind NOAA’s regulatory policies was a consistent theme of the witnesses, which included one New Englander, John Pappalardo, the chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association.
Pappalardo gave an unqualified endorsement to the annual catch limits which were written into the 2006 re-authorization of Magnuson, calling the catch limits the “cornerstone” of the management system.
“However, annual catch limits demand annual stock assessments,” said Pappalardo. “We cannot end overfishing without better, more reliable, real time information and timely stock assessments.”
NOAA conducts stock assessments every three to five years in New England, in contrast to Alaska, a region with much larger scale fisheries, which are subject to annual stock assessments.
Richard Gaines can be reached a 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.