By Richard Gaines
---- — The fourth 10-year revision and re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is about to get underway.
The process will highlight different perspectives on the need for writing flexibility into the law — which was the subject of two national rallies at the Capitol, one in 2010 and another in 2012 — from the team of Congressman John Tierney and former Congressman Barney Frank, advocates of the need for flexibility on the one hand, to Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Ed Markey on the other, who does not share their view of the law as an inflexible impediment to a revitalized industry.
As the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, and a Democratic candidate in the special election to succeed former Sen. John Kerry, Markey, a Malden Democrat from a landlocked district, will be a key figure in the rewriting of the law. Unlike Tierney and Frank, however, Markey has repeatedly said he believes the Magnuson-Stevens Act has more than enough flexibility, essentially putting him in lockstep with the White House and environmental activists.
The House Natural Resources Committee holds its first hearing into the future nature of the original fishery conservation and management act on Wednesday, with nation’s oldest fishery, the Northeast groundfishery in shambles and bipartisan sentiment strong for writing enough flexibility into the law to give harvesters a reasonable chance to survive while stocks in duress are rebuilt.
The hearing, to be conducted by Chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington state Republican, will involve an invited group of witnesses — but just one New Englander, John Pappalardo, executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. The 10 a.m. hearing will be available by webcast on the committee website.
The hearings are beginning earlier than in past decades. Enacted in 1976, Magnuson-Stevens established the 200-mile exclusive economic zone and banished foreign factory trawlers that were cleaning out stocks of the Northwest Atlantic that had been worked by Europeans since the 14th century. The law was modified and reauthorized in 1986, ’96 and 2006.
Beginning in 1996 and continuing in 2006, environmentalists asserted the need to protect the stocks, and under intense green lobbying pressure, Congress wrote provisions intended to ensure that the fisheries were protected from commercial exploitation.
The 2006 re-authorization was a product of the lame duck session, and put into place the final pieces of a regulatory system that Frank and Tierney foresaw as creating a rigid vice — hard catch limits together with 10 year rebuilding schedules for weakened stocks. Both Frank, who represented New Bedford until retiring at the end of the last session, and Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, voted against the 2006 re-authorization.
The mixture of the conservation provisions written in 1996 and 2006 put the industry on notice that extreme cutbacks in landings were inevitable in 2010, and fueled the assembly of the catch share management system for the groundfishery based on claims from environmental groups financed by the Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart) that converting the fisheries into commodity markets with tradeable catch shares would ensure conservation and profitability.
The promises, made most ardently by Jane Lubchenco, President Obama’s choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, proved empty and by late 2011 the Northeast groundfishery was in defacto disaster — and in September 2012, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank made the “economic disaster” declaration official.
Markey will preside as ranking Democrat on the committee, make an opening statement and question witnesses.
In an email, Markey emphasized his support for disaster relief funding, and laid blame for the failure of the relief effort at the feet of House Republicans at the end of the 112th Congress. He also reiterated his position that Magnuson, “while not perfect, does provide flexibility.”
”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. “It is flexible enough that when my colleagues and I requested that NOAA cover the cost of at-sea observers, the answer was yes. 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.”
Recently resigned NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco acknowledged that the 10 year rebuilding timetable had no scientific basis, but to both Frank and Tierney’s frustration she said that admission would not influence her to support giving regulators more flexibility
”Whether fish recover in seven, nine or 11 years, doesn’t seem to me to be a moral issue,” Frank said in an interview with the Times in 2010. “To them,” he added, meaning hard-line environmentalists, it seems to be.”
Asked what priorities they hoped to see written into the next iteration of the Magnsuon Act, Frank and Tierney both said “flexibility.” Frank added “independent science,” which has emerged as a lightening rod issue since the growth of skepticism about the ability of stock assessments to provide credible readings into the nature of an ecosystem under obvious alteration due to climate change.
In a email, Tierney said, “In the last seven months, federal fisheries disasters have been declared in nine states, including Alaska, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. With drastic cuts to catch limits looming, and with fishermen and their families already struggling to make ends meet, we need reform.
“On Monday, I will send a formal letter to the committee chairman urging a thorough review of the system and an open dialogue as to how best to move forward,” Tierney said. “We clearly need more flexibility and better science, but should be open to substantial changes to the entire system if that is what is determined to be needed.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.