By Richard Gaines
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.
Pushing back against the legislation is an alliance of conservation organizations centered around the Pew Environment Group.
"We're trying to keep that bill from moving," Pew's Lee Crockett has said.
Pallone, however, has 32 co-sponsors for the bill to write flexibility into Magnuson, including congressmen Barney Frank, John Tierney, Michael E. Capuano, and Democratic colleagues Michael H. Michaud of Maine, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island.
"Whether fish recover in seven, nine or 11 years, it doesn't seem to me to be a moral issue," Frank told the Times in a previous interview. "To them," he added, meaning Pew and its allies, "it seems to be."
Pew, however, supports a related bill by Pallone and co-sponsors that would set up a fishing industry and ports stimulus program to retrain fishermen, revitalize waterfronts and promote cooperative research.
Crockett said $80 million for five years was authorized for the program, though how much is actually appropriated remains to be determined.
Co-sponsored by Shea-Porter and Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, the Coastal Jobs Creation Act gets a public hearing Tuesday before the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans.
That panel's chairwoman, Madeleine Z. Bordallo, a Guam Democrat, has held a series of hearings this year on the unfolding scandal in the federal fisheries law enforcement agencies, and on catch shares, the Obama administration's re-engineering of the fishing industry into a market based on fishermen's catch allocations that can be bought, sold or traded as commodities.
The Recreational Fishing Alliance was the lead organizer for the Feb. 24 rally at the side of the U.S. Capitol.
The flexibility bill would allow regulators to extend the 10-year rebuilding period if certain conditions exist. These include the need to "provide for the sustained participation of fishing communities or to minimize the economic impact on such communities, provided that there is evidence that the stock of fish is on a positive rebuilding trend," according to a summary of the legislation provided by the sponsors.
Another condition that allows extending the rebuilding timetable is the finding that the rebuilding cannot be achieved only by limiting fishing.
Giacalone and other industry analysts have argued that the biomass goal is a non-scientific guess, and a moving target allowing the regulators to keep the industry at bay no matter how steep the rebuilding curve.
But Crockett and critics of fiddling with Magnuson warn against removing the rebuilding imperatives.
Last year, Pew and nearly four dozen allied groups mobilized a petition campaign and lobbied hard against the bill — Pallone's House version and a Senate twin filed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.