A bipartisan congressional duo has refiled legislation to instill flexibility to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is interpreted by the Obama administration to require overfished stocks to be rebuilt on a rigid, 10-year time frame.
The tight rebuilding deadlines have contributed to ultra-small allocations of stocks that have pushed many less capitalized small boat fishing businesses to the sidelines since the onset of the catch share management system within the New England groundfishery in May 2010. The Gloucester fleet alone lost 21 boats last year, lowering the number of working boats to around 75, according to an analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outlined last month.
"I do not understand why in this economy the government would require rebuilding of a fish stock in 10 years even when that causes widespread economic dislocation, and when — if given a few more years — the fish stock could be rebuilt with minimal economic hardship to fishermen," said one of the bill's co-sponsors, Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican whose district includes that state's Outer Banks.
"The lack of common sense here is stunning," Jones added.
Jones' co-sponsor is Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat. Pallone was also lead sponsor of the initial Magnuson reform measure, which drew support from the Recreational Fishing Alliance as well as from the commercial industry.
Outside the Obama administration, many fisheries scientists — including marine scientist Brian Rothschild of University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and state Attorney General Martha Coakley — have argued the rigid interpretation of Magnuson arises from misreading the act and the intent of Congress.
Job loss and weakened port economies have sparked bipartisan opposition to Obama administration ocean and fisheries policies, while a powerful coalition of greens has pushed back on behalf of the administration.
NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco has conceded the 10-year rebuilding mandate has no scientific basis, but opposes changing Magnuson.
The Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act, the rallying point for an unprecedented mass meeting of fishermen from all three coasts in February 2010, was filed in late September but announced last week by Jones' office.
More than 30 members of the House and Senate — including Democratic Reps. John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford — co-sponsored the previous iteration of the bill.
Despite the rally, the earlier version of the bill never got a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs. But since the Republicans wrested control of the House from Democrats in the midterm elections, the committee and subcommittee have tilted toward industry.
Last summer, under Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington, the full committee held an oversight hearing on President Obama's Executive Order to begin the process of what Hastings called "ocean zoning" after failing to win Congressional support for the initiative.
The Environmental Defense Fund, the Pew Environment Group and other major nonprofit groups have made a priority of blocking any modification of Magnuson, whose 2007 reauthorization was approved by a lame-duck session and came after extensive lobbying from the so-called green organizations.
Frank and Tierney voted against the reauthorization.
At Sen. John Kerry's Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Boston on Oct. 3, Frank questioned Lubchenco about the 10-year rebuilding time line in Magnuson, eliciting her opinion that the rebuilding deadline was arbitrary. But Lubchenco also said she did not favor a more flexible approach.
Last month, Lubchenco had an unpublicized three-hour meeting with 16 green nonprofit groups, and when questioned by Sen. Scott Brown about optics implying a bias toward the green stakeholders, Lubchenco said that, if anything, she had spent much more time with fishermen than the environmental lobbyists.
In an interview with the Associated Press published the day before the Kerry hearing, Lubchenco argued that she has "a longstanding great relationship with fishermen as well as environmental groups, and I know they are not at polar opposite ends."
Under the Jones-Pallone bill, flexibility to the rebuilding time lines on overfished stocks would be allowed when "it is necessary to provide for the sustained participation of fishing communities or to minimize impacts on such communities, provided there is evidence that the stock is on a positive rebuilding trend."
During the Commerce Committee hearing, under questioning by Frank, Lubchenco also conceded there was no sign of ecological harm from flexibility recently written into rebuilding time lines for stocks along the U.S.-Canadian boundary line through Georges Bank.
"If we were from Mars and visited earth and observed the fishery management system," Rothschild testified at the same hearing, "we could have to conclude that Congress intended to create a management system in the Northeast that wastes 100,000 tons of fish per year worth hundreds of millions of dollars, while failing to create hundreds of jobs (and) disregarding the economic and social impact of fisheries management."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.