NEW BEDFORD — The impending reauthorization of the federal laws governing commercial fisheries has mobilized environmentalists who contend that any relaxation of existing rules amounts to capitulation to reckless fishing interests and endangerment to the fish populations. Since 1996 the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act has been the underpinning of rebuilding fish stocks across the United States, say powerful non-profit environmental groups and their backers. Relaxing the rules now would be disastrous, they argue. The online newsletter Seafood News editorialized that the bill that has emerged from the GOP-controlled Natural Resources Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives could be renamed the "Destabilization of Our Nation's Fisheries Act." "What has made U.S. Fisheries Management the singular success it has been, and the most sustainable fisheries management regime globally, has the basic commitment to put science ahead of politics for rebuilding and allocating fisheries," wrote Seafood News. Peter Shelley, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said that he does not disagree with anything that Seafood News argued. (The bill as reported out of committee "reintroduces a lot of politics into fisheries management that it took decades to get rid of," Shelley told The Standard-Times. The committee-approved bill reauthorizing Magnuson and introduced by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, makes a number of changes in the way fisheries are regulated and scientific information is collected, after hearings revealed weaknesses in the methodology that are causing such caution in regulatory management that fishing communities are suffering and dying, according to the committee.
The provision that attracts the most opposition may be the one that allows for flexibility in determining the stock rebuilding timelines for various species of fish. As it is written now, the Magnuson-Stevens Act sets a strict, and many say arbitrary, 10-year timeline for rebuilding every species of fish in the fisheries, including the Northeast, where an excess of 19 stocks are regulated by quotas and "catch share" allocations.
The problem, say some scientists, is that the science underpinning the quotas is faulty, leading to excessively conservative allocations as a precaution against error. Those precautions in turn have been forcing most Northeast groundfish boats off the water.
This has led to the call for more cooperative research with fishermen and non-governmental scientists, to do better surveys so that overcaution doesn't forfeit millions of pounds of fish every year.
Dr. Brian Rothschild, professor emeritus of marine biology at UMass Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology, told The Standard-Times that "we should do better science and implement what makes scientific sense rather than do things politically." The conflict occurs because the environmental non-profit organizations view any relaxation of rebuilding timelines as politically inspired.
James Odlin of Maine, a fisherman, boat owner and regular at New England Fisheries Management Council meetings, wrote in rebuttal to Seafood News about the existing Magnuson-Stevens Act regulations, "The rigid arbitrary rebuilding timelines and unrealistic rebuilding targets that almost no one thinks are realistically achievable, do not reflect the current ecological conditions, along with very thin survey data that some would argue is not statistically valid, constitute a recipe for failure."
To which Matthew Mullin, Northeast regional director of the U.S. Oceans Program of the Environmental Defense Fund replied, “There is really no need to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The law has virtually eliminated overfishing and is working relatively well overall. Weakening rebuilding standards, as the existing reauthorization bill does, threatens to further deplete New England’s fisheries.”