It has been 16 years since the last comprehensive update of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the overarching federal fisheries law, in 2006. The new effort, called the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act, took a major step forward this week.
Also known in Congress as H.R. 4690, the legislation went through a day-long markup session Tuesday in the House Committee on Natural Resources, to consider changes and proposed amendments. The measure is now scheduled for a final committee vote Sept. 29, clearing its way to the full House of Representatives for debate.
The bill is the result of “over three years of work and exhaustive public input,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., a prime sponsor of the legislation.
“Everywhere we went, we heard the foundation of Magnuson is sound,” Huffman said as the committee opened its debate in the Capitol Wednesday morning. But the onset of climate change effects on U.S. fisheries is a leading reason why the law is in dire need of updating, he said.
Progress on the bill had been delayed with the death in March 2022 of Rep. Don Young, the longtime Alaska Republican congressman for nearly half a century who shepherded bipartisan 2006 Magnuson amendments through Congress.
In this session of Congress, H.R. 4690 is moving in a very different political environment – with the parties farther apart, and control of the now-Democratic controlled House up for grabs in the November mid-term elections.
The Magnuson-Stevens act and its creation of eight regional management councils has made the United States the “premier” global example of fisheries management, said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the ranking Republican committee member.
Parts of H.R. 4690 would undo that accomplishment, said Westerman.
“We believe it falls far short of the goals set by Mr. Young” in the 2006 legislation, he said.
Westerman and other Republican members raised objections from fishing, seafood, retail and food service industry groups, arguing that the long-running Magnuson-Stevens management system is a success at risk from the proposed changes.
On the eve of Wednesday’s committee markup meeting, some 40 national and regional fishing industry groups and dozens of individual fishermen sent the committee a warning of potential consequences if the measure is passed.
Huffman engaged for months with industry groups while working on the measure. But in an open letter those groups expressed alarm that provisions they had expressly recommended against remain in the working draft of the legislation.
“Sustainable federal fisheries will be curtailed or shut down entirely. Waves of opportunistic litigation will create uncertainty,” the letter stated. “Seafood sector workers, including in remote coastal communities, will lose their jobs. Seafood buyers will run short on domestic inventory and be forced to procure more product from foreign sources.
“American consumers will see seafood prices spike at their local restaurants and grocery stores, and they will turn to less nutritious food options and proteins with far higher carbon footprints than wild seafood.”
Proposed provisions to curtail bycatch in U.S. fisheries provoked particular alarm among those advocates.
“A mandate to absolutely minimize bycatch in all circumstances, however, as your legislation requires, could very well lead to managers or the courts shutting down fisheries where bycatch cannot be eliminated,” the letter stated.
“Similarly, some of our nation’s biggest fisheries would meet the definition of forage fish in your legislation, needlessly requiring strict new limitations on directed fishing,” according to the letter.
One of those fisheries would be Atlantic herring, which conservation groups see as a keystone species for the survival of sea birds among other marine species. Menhaden is another, already under heavy political pressure at the management level by recreational groups.
Democratic committee members spoke of the need for reforms based on what fishermen are seeing in their home districts.
“This was the first year coho salmon were restricted on the Kuskokwim River,” said Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, who is serving the remainder of Rep. Don Young’s term through January 2023, and attended the resources committee for the first time.
“The Bering Sea is warming significantly faster than oceans in the temperate zones,” said Peltola. Chum, crab and chinook fisheries are tracking downward, she noted.
One proposed addition to the law would create two Native seats on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in recognition of Alaska’s critical subsistence fisheries, said Peltola.
She approved of the bill’s intent to better address bycatch, “which limits Native Alaskans who depend on fish for subsistence.”
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., countered that stricter bycatch requirements would “absolutely annihilate our recreational and commercial fishermen,” citing how Alaska crab traps can attract blackcod.
The law now calls for limiting bycatch “to the extent practicable,” said Wittman. Replacing that as an “open, objective standard…will be incredibly harmful,” he added.
H.R. 4690 language on essential fish habitat would have the effect of imposing National Environmental Protection Act requirements on fishery management councils, contended Rep. Garret Graves, R-La.
In the Gulf of Mexico “the recreational pressures are unlike anywhere,” said Graves, who called the region’s state-led management of red snapper “a success.”
“You’re creating a NEPA for essential fish habitat” that will impose big regulatory burdens, he said.
Huffman called that “hyperbole.” Under existing Magnuson-Stevens provisions essential fish habitat lacks clear legal meaning, and the proposed change will require consultation but not a right to challenge, he said: “It’s a modest step.”
Doing what’s right for U.S. fisheries has been a bipartisan enterprise, ever since Congress in 1976 passed the original version of what is now Magnuson–Stevens. Committee member members displayed a photo poster that memorialized the 2006 bill signing by former president George W. Bush, with Young and other legislators from both parties standing together.
The debate had its moments of outright partisan rivalry. Westerman called H.R. 4690 “blatantly partisan legislation brought to us near the end of this Congress.”
Huffman defended his work with members of both parties and stakeholders among the public.
“That’s just totally false as anyone who has followed this process knows,” he said.
At the end of the eight-hour committee session to consider changes, 17 amendments had been offered. Members of the Republican minority were outvoted on their attempts to tie any Magnuson-Stevens changes to potential economic effects, from the future cost of federally-subsidized school lunches, to foreign seafood competition.