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May, 2006


Don't Let Congress Be Bad For Fish

We are asking for your editorial support to ensure that Congress promotes the use of science-based management when reviewing and revising the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). The MSA is the primary federal law that governs U.S. ocean fisheries.
U.S. Congressmen Barney Frank (D-MA), Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), and Richard Pombo (R-CA) have each introduced separate bills in the U.S. House of Representatives to revise the MSA. The House Resources Committee will be holding legislative hearings on April 25 in New Bedford, MA and on May 3 in Washington, DC. There are no hearings planned for the west coast. A strong editorial in support of strengthening the MSA to better protect fish populations could greatly influence lawmakers' opinions at these hearings.

As it considers MSA legislation, Congress has two fishery management models from which to choose. The North Pacific Council model bases management decisions on the best available science and sets catch limits with accountability measures for exceeding the limits. The New England Council model of fishery management allows short-term economic and political influences to override scientific recommendations and permits overfishing to occur despite legal requirements that councils end overfishing and rebuild depleted populations as quickly as possible.

House lawmakers have just laid their cards on the table so that we can compare the hands we've been dealt. But just as the card dealer usually has the advantage, House Resources Committee Chair Pombo will most likely push his own bill through his committee. If he is successful in passing the bill as it stands now, the pot will include some serious rollbacks to the current law with long-term negative consequences for our fisheries.

Rep. Pombo's bill creates a trawl net-sized loophole for identifying overfished stocks, precluding restoration of those stocks to healthy levels and ultimately jeopardizing fish stocks and fishing communities. The bill also adds several new loopholes to allow managers to extend rebuilding timelines and let stocks slide further downhill. Additionally, his bill exempts fisheries managers from compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which ensures that fisheries managers consider a broad list of alternatives and that the public has an opportunity to weigh in on management decisions.

The bill also does not contain much needed improvements. Most importantly, it does not set well-defined catch limits with built in accountability measures if the limits are exceeded. Implementing science-based catch limits with deductions for overages taken out of the following year's quota will go a long way toward ensuring sustainable and healthy fish populations. Rep. Pombo also does not take any initiative to create a trust fund to finance crucial fisheries research and data collection. Additionally, the bill does not ensure that members of the public have greater representation on the regional fishery management councils. (For a full list of concerns about Rep. Pombo's bill, please see attachment.) Congress must strengthen the MSA because our fisheries managers have not implemented necessary conservation measures to keep our oceans viable and productive. In an April 9, 2006 article, National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson Susan Buchanan told the Cape Cod Times that: "We can rebuild (fish stocks) while overfishing is occurring because unfettered, massive overfishing is not occurring."

Overfishing is overfishing, unfettered or not. Allowing overfishing is not conducive to rebuilding fish populations - that's like trying to climb out of debt while consistently maxing out your credit card each month. NMFS' management strategy of allowing overfishing to occur on overfished populations is equivalent to living on credit and planning to win the lottery. We cannot rely on such impossible odds to manage our fisheries.

We need a fisheries management system that bases all decisions on the best-available science. The North Pacific Council has proven that this model of fisheries management works, and we need your help to encourage Congress to implement this model throughout the rest of the country. We can no longer afford to gamble with the future of fish populations and fishing communities. Please consider writing an editorial in support of strengthening the MSA, to protect our oceans and the people who depend on them.

Tony DeFalco, Marine Fish Conservation Network

[email protected]

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