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July 23, 2010

Formal fed hearing sought for Magnuson reform bill

Flexibility plan seen as key to easing tight fishing limits

A formal request has been filed for a congressional committee hearing on a bill that would give new flexibility to the Magnuson-Stevens Act and allow regulators to give fishermen larger catch allocations while overfished stocks rebuild on an extended timeline.

The Magnuson statute, the governing document for fisheries, still generally requires overfished stocks to be rebuilt on hard, 10-year schedules.

The proposed Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act would allow the government to make the timelines somewhat elastic as long as progress continues toward the goal.

The rigid requirements in Magnuson for rebuilding in a decade for the most part have been held responsible in many quarters for the paltry allocations to the New England groundfishing fleet, now struggling to keep afloat with between one quarter and one third the volume of fish allocated into catch shares that were landed last year.

Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said last week he believed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was angling for a "forced consolidation by pushing fish off the table."

When confronted, NOAA regulators have pointed to the Magnuson Act and insisted Congress has given them no choice but to grant low catch allocations.

The lead sponsor of the flexibility act, Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., notified the Recreational Fishing Alliance this week that a request for a hearing had been sent to Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The power to grant a hearing sits with Rahall, the committee chairman. Efforts to reach his staff Friday were unsuccessful.

Pallone's move is sure to start a political ruckus. The flexibility act has been a perennial non-starter, but a combination of constraints on fishing — some statutory, some regulatory — by the Obama administration helped bring to Washington, D.C. in February as many as 5,000 recreational and commercial fishermen for an unprecedented national rally for fishing rights, and access to enough fish to sustain the industry.

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