Magnuson-Stevens Act revisions focus of fishers in 2014


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SEATTLE — Bycatch reporting, transparency and the role of the National Environmental Policy Act in fisheries management are among the proposed Magnuson-Stevens Act amendments the North Pacific Fishery Management Council scrutinized during its February meeting.

The act, or MSA, is currently in the process of being reauthorized and amended. House and Senate committees have held hearings on the changes, and in December the House Natural Resources Committee released its draft version of possible new language in the bill. The Senate has not yet produced its version, but will likely do so this spring.

The North Pacific council manages federal fisheries offshore from Alaska. The MSA, which was last reauthorized in 2006 and is up for renewal, regulates most fisheries in American federal waters 3 to 200 miles offshore, and authorizes the eight regional fishery management councils.

The council is expected to provide comments for a February Senate hearing on the House draft and share North Pacific concerns.

Generally, council Executive Director Chris Oliver said that the current iteration of the legislation is working for the North Pacific, and that much of the last round of MSA revisions were based on how Alaska manages its fisheries, so significant changes probably aren’t needed.

But there were some issues he noted in the House committee’s language.

That draft contains a provision specific to the North Pacific that would provide more confidentiality protections for bycatch information, and would prevent the current practice of releasing weekly bycatch data to the public, Oliver said.

Council member Bill Tweit of Washington said that would essentially “gut” much of what the council has done in terms of requiring full retention.

Council Chair Eric Olson said that making more data confidential would affect his judgment on initiating future catch share programs, given that such programs revolve around the use of a public resource.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” he said.

Earlier in the meeting, the council also heard a report about the economics of Bering Sea chinook, or king, salmon bycatch that noted that public knowledge of bycatch was an incentive in keeping those numbers low.

The survey provided quotes from fishery participants, and top reasons for avoiding bycatch that included pressure, moral responsibility and the quote, “I care about my reputation. I don’t want to be on the dirty list.”

The draft House language would implement new standards for transparency in the council process requiring video streaming of meetings and full transcripts of council and Scientific and Statistical Committee meetings.

Oliver said he thought those particular standards could be difficult to meet.

Council member Nicole Kimball, the alternate on the council for Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, who was at the Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage, said she thought the council could signal support for transparency in general, but not a prescriptive way to get there.

Olson said that the council might also note cost and logistics issues with such a requirement; not all Alaska meeting locations have the same technology capacities, which would make live video difficult.

Another change would address the interplay between the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and the MSA. Tweit noted that NEPA can get cumbersome for the council process, and a change could simplify things.

During public testimony, however, Becca Robbins Gisclair asked the council to consider supporting continuance of the NEPA process, as it provides an additional opportunity for stakeholder input on decisions.

Another change on the table in the House draft would give the councils more of a role in setting the annual catch limits.

Oliver said he didn’t think the North Pacific council would change its process if that change was implemented, but it would allow councils to override the recommendations of the SSC in favor of setting a higher catch limit.

Currently, catch limits must be at or less than the SSC recommendation, and there is generally a buffer between the overfishing limit, or OFL, and the annual catch limit, or ACL, based on the uncertainty of stock assessments. The SSC sets the OFL, and the council approves catch limits based on that.

The House draft also proposes to change the term “overfished” to “depleted.”

Council member Jim Balsiger, who is the Alaska Region Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said that suggestion has been made previously and the agency has opposed it because “depleted” is a specific term used in the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

Council members also said they generally supported the idea of providing more flexibility for rebuilding plans and allowing emergency rules to be used for a year rather than 180 days.

The change to allow flexibility is intended as a way to lessen economic impacts of those plans, and to account for species with a lifecycle that may not rebuild on a 10-year timeframe.

Another North Pacific provision would also eliminate a loophole that currently could result in vessels not registered with the State of Alaska fishing for salmon in areas exempted from the federal fishery management plan, which the council generally supported.

Tweit also noted that the body should be cautious in supporting changes, as any alerted language could have unintended consequences. Council member John Henderschedt of Seattle echoed that, and talked about the need to consider overarching policy in any changes.

Council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak also said that the council might want to consider drafting its own priority issues and taking a more proactive stance, rather than reacting to the changes others have considered.

Council participates in MSA workshop

Several members of the council also participated in a workshop on the Magnuson-Stevens Act organized by the Center for Sustainable Fisheries and National Fisherman magazine.

The Center for Sustainable Fisheries is a New Bedford-based nonprofit. President Brian Rothschild was the primary speaker, offering his perspective on what changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act are needed.

Generally, Rothschild talked about the need for flexibility for the councils, a broader base of science on which to base decisions and the possibility of additional oversight for fisheries management. He also opened it up for the council members and fishery stakeholders from Alaska and Washington to participate in a discussion.

Regarding flexibility, Rothschild discussed the possibility of enabling the council to set quotas without basing them on a single SSC recommendation or model.

In Alaska, the SSC recommendations are generally based on more frequent stock assessments, making the numbers more reliable than they are on the East Coast. Some stock assessments here occur yearly, such as pollock and crab, with flatfish and other species surveyed every other year.

On the East Coast, many species are surveyed on a triennial basis and severe harvest cuts in recent years have called the models and stock assessments into question.

Rothschild also mentioned the idea of removing some of the weight given to science produced by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and  — in lawsuits, at least — giving some additional consideration to other science.

For extra oversight, Rothschild mentioned the idea of creating a review board that reports to Congress. If that idea gained traction, he said there would likely need to be a national discussion about how big it would be and its exact role in fisheries.

Rothschild’s comments also favored a shift in how overfishing and overfished are treated. He also emphasized that what is sometimes seen as an overfished stock is really the result of environmental factors that are not fully understood by scientists — or controllable.

Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack echoed that perspective. Mack said his parents moved to the Aleutians to fish cod. That stock declined despite the fact that fishing pressure was limited by the gear used. Now, that fishery has recovered and is again strong, he said.

Rothschild also talked about changes to the 10 MSA National Standards that every fishery management plan must meet.

His proposed language would essentially help incorporate National Standard 8, which requires plans to protect communities dependent on fisheries, into National Standard 1, which requires plans to achieve optimum yield while preventing overfishing. To do so, it would call for maximizing yield, while living within the constraints set by the applicable council. Currently, the language in National Standard 1 refers only to preventing overfishing while achieving optimum yield.

Rothschild said “overfishing” and “overfished” are not well-defined terms, and noted that underfishing can be equally problematic.

The regulations for implementing National Standard 1 are currently under revision, and some of those ideas could possibly come up in that process.

CSF has previously held workshops elsewhere in the United States to get various perspectives on possible changes. In April, CSF is planning to host a workshop in Washington, D.C. and will provide the information it has gathered around the country to lawmakers.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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