GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 23, 2010

Congress OKs opening door to higher catch limits

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Congress has sent President Obama bipartisan legislation that would remove a legal hurdle that has barred federal fishery regulators from raising catch limits along the line with Canada that divides Georges Bank between the two nations.

The president is expected to sign the International Fisheries Clarification Act, which took four years to clear Congress after the idea emerged from the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.

Vito Giacalone, policy director for the coalition, said the legislation will allow for increased catch limits on cod, haddock and most yellowtail flounder for fishermen out of Gloucester and other U.S. ports, while demonstrating that overfished stocks can be rebuilt over a longer time frame than the 10-year deadline in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The legislation was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We are pleased this legislation has passed," said NOAA Fisheries Administrator Eric Schwaab.

The primary beneficiaries are expected to be the big offshore boats that venture out for weeklong trips to Georges for yellowtail and scallops, which include a yellowtail bycatch.

Canada and the U.S. have fallen into disagreement over the catch limits on the three stocks, yellowtail, cod and haddock, jointly managed on Georges.

Unconstrained by the 10-year rebuilding schedules for overfished stocks that govern U.S. regulators, Canada has wanted higher catch limits but was constrained by the inability of their American counterparts to allow a more relaxed rebuilding time frame.

Giacalone and, in Congress, Rep. Barney Frank have questioned the wisdom of forcing overfished stocks to be rebuilt in 10-year terms, as written into the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnsuon Act by Congress under heavy pressure from hardline conservation groups.

"Whether fish recover in seven, nine or 11 years, it doesn't seem to me to be a moral issue," Frank told the Times earlier this year.

The transboundary agreement left the two nations "extremely stressed and strained," said Giacalone. "We warned of the disconnect for some time."

Lead sponsors for the new act, which went to the president on Tuesday, were Frank and Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. But the legislation also had the support of Congressman John Tierney and Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown.

Snow and Brown are Republicans, while Frank, Tierney and Kerry are all Democrats.

The existing law governing fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, allows the United States to negotiate "international agreements" with other countries regarding the rebuilding of fish stocks, Frank's office explained in a prepared statement.

Until now, the statement continued, the U.S. State Department has considered that the bilateral "understanding" between the U.S. and Canada for joint responsibility over Georges fails to meet the criteria of an international agreement under the Magnuson Act.

The bill approved Tuesday specified that the transboundary "understanding" that the two nations committed to reaching was in fact "an international agreement." And as such, it qualifies to give the partnering nations' regulators the exception in Magnuson to extend rebuilding time frames beyond the 10 years that are generally allowed for reportedly overfished stocks.

The disconnect between the two nations' different regulatory systems had brought disintegrating cooperation. This year — for the first time — Canada and the U.S. failed to settle on a single regimen for the stocks of yellowtail, cod and haddock within the 45,000 square miles inside Georges Bank.

"For too long," Snowe said in a prepared statement, "our fishery managers have been placed at a competitive disadvantage in negotiating catch limits with their Canadian counterparts because of an erroneous interpretation of the law."

"We worked with Congressional leaders to craft effective legislation that will help level the playing field between the U.S. and Canada for important fisheries," said Schwaab. "This will pave the way to reopen discussions with Canada that should lead to increased catch limits for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder."

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.