GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 8, 2013

Fish panels all back Magnuson flexibility

By Richard Gaines
Staff writer

---- — All eight of the nation’s regional fishery management councils, the grassroots panels that work with NOAA in fishery management and on regulatory rules, put themselves on record Tuesday in favor of Congress’ writing flexibility for rebuilding timelines for overfished stocks in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The positioning of the councils on what has become a climactic issue with Magnuson, the overarching federal law guiding NOAA’s administration of America’s fisheries, was easy to overlook in the opening of the three-day Managing our Nation’s Fisheries Conference, which serves as a download of papers and opinions for Congress as it builds momentum toward rewriting one of the nation’s enormously expansive laws, already recast and amended three times since its 1976 inception.

But today, the conference holds a working session on “Rebuilding Program Requirements and Timelines” that will have the luxury of drilling deeply into this complex issue.

That’s when Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group which has long opposed deadline-driven timelines for stocks being rebuilt, presents a paper that argues that it shouldn’t matter “how long it takes to get there,” she said in a telephone interview from the Mayflower Renaissance Washington hotel, which is hosting the conference.

Fierce opposition to giving NOAA flexibility in writing rebuilding plans has come from the Pew Environment Group, which is a lead financial sponsor of the conference and a subdivision of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which have poured tens of millions of dollars into fisheries management and other related issues.

It was Pew Enviromental Group that organized a lobbying campaign in 2010 against a bill filed by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, that proved a main focal point for a national fishermen’s rally at the U.S. Capitol. A similar rally took place in 2011, but so far Congress has not moved legislation to modify Magnuson.

At the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference this week, there are more than 500 registered participants —from Congress, the Obama administration, NOAA, and the many non-government organizations which have been supported financially by a handful of industrial foundations that helped shape the 1996 and 2006 reauthorizations and wield influence on the nature of fisheries policy.

The 2006 re-authorization added hard catch limits, which in combination with rebuilding deadline language already in the law forced the New England Fishery Management Council to recommend dramatically lower catch limits on essential stocks. But even after the council voted in January to urge NOAA to grant the industry a second year’s reprieve from drastic cuts in cod and yellowtail, NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard said he was required by a legal brief, never made public, of NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer, to dramatically constrain landings due to Magnuson language. Pew released a paper on Magnuson on Monday, the eve of the start of the conference, with a theme captured by the title, “It’s a Keeper.”

The paper implicitly supports the 10-year rebuilding deadline, including the provision in a step-by-step analysis of how the law evolved to “secure sustainable fisheries” and throughout that polishing, not altering Magnuson was what Pew Environment Group was supporting.

Existing rebuilding timelines are arbitrary, but there still needs to be a way to maintain rebuilding efforts such as controlling fishing mortality rates was the gist of the thinking of Rip Cunningham, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council.

At an opening session, with agreement across all eight councils, Cunningham said there’s a need for more flexibility for Councils to address serious issues such as changing environmental conditions.

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