Senate hears from North Pacific on MSA reauthorization


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While commercial users generally said the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working, subsistence and recreational fishers asked for a louder voice in the management process at a congressional hearing regarding the law up for reauthorization this year.

The Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing Feb. 27 to gather Alaska and North Pacific perspectives on the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization currently underway.

The act, or MSA, regulates management of federal fisheries from three miles to 200 miles offshore, including in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. It was implemented in 1976, and most recently updated in 2006. Now it’s up for reauthorization, with amendments likely.

The House Natural Resources Committee released their draft in December.

Sen. Mark Begich, chairman of the Senate oceans subcommittee, said the Senate draft could be out near the end of March, but that the committee wanted to gather as much input as possible before working on the legislation.

The hearing in Washington, D.C., was one of several held in both the House and Senate on possible changes.

As-is, the MSA primarily addresses commercial fisheries management, but Begich was careful to refer to all three sectors, not just commercial users, when talking about who relies on fisheries in Alaska. He also noted the value of recreational fisheries to coastal economies, particularly anglers targeting halibut and salmon. He also referenced the long history of subsistence fishing.

The participants also submitted longer written testimony, and after the hearing, Begich said the committee would keep the record open for two weeks to ask for answers to additional questions.

Sport, subsistence users ask for voice

Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease was one of several fishing industry representatives to participate in the hearing. He spoke largely about the recreational sector, and what is needed in the next iteration of the MSA.

In terms of commercial management, he said, the MSA is being polished, and in terms of conservation efforts, the law is being further developed.

“I think for the recreational fisheries in this country, we’re asking to be in stage one in this reauthorization process, where we get the basic definitions, characteristics and tools in the toolbox for regulators and managers to realize the full economic and social values of these very important recreational fisheries,” he said.

Gease detailed the major differences between commercial and recreational fisheries management. Recreational fisheries are based on angler days, and reliant on maximum sustained production, which is getting the most fish into an ecosystem, rather than maximum sustained yield, which looks at value from the fishery harvest, Gease said.

He also talked about the need to recognize the importance of stable bag limits and fisheries without in-season tweaking, and the need for more information about the economics of recreational fisheries. The value trickles through several industries, including tourism, gear sales, transportation and even real estate, Gease said.

In response to a question from Begich, Gease also said that recreational allocations have been based on historical catches, but that doesn’t account for the economic value of the sector.

Association of Village Council Presidents Director of Natural Resources Tim Andrew asked the committee to add a designated Tribal seat to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and include the word subsistence throughout the MSA to help protect subsistence resources.

AVCP represents Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities and Tribes. Andrew said he spoke on behalf of almost 100 Tribes in Alaska because he also was representing the Tanana Chiefs Conference. Right now, Andrew said Tribes don’t have an adequate voice in the management process.

Commercial fishermen address catch shares

Fisheries managers and commercial fishing groups largely supported how the act is working right now, although some also addressed various sectors’ views of catch share programs.

Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken talked about the need to preserve and protect coastal communities, particularly as catch shares are developed.

“I would call to Congress’ attention that the new threat to fishing communities is too few fishermen, not too many. Our fisheries are fully prosecuted but by a fragment of the fleet that once filled the harbors, and empty harbors hurt coastal economies,” Behnken wrote in her written testimony.

She asked for a change to the MSA national standards governing all fishery management plans that would strengthen the language regarding community protections, and a requirement that fishing community plans be included as part of fishery impact plans.

Trident Seafoods legal counsel Joe Plesha talked about processors’ desire to be included in future catch share programs.

The Gulf of Alaska rockfish program included linkages between harvesters and their historic processor in the five-year pilot program from 2006-11, but specifically did not allow such links in the most recent iteration that began in 2012. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council did not continue the ties between harvesters and processors when it reauthorized the rockfish program based on federal legal guidance that determined on-shore processing is not fishing, and therefore cannot be included in catch share programs that divide the harvest among users.

Plesha said that as the council looks at further rationalization in the Gulf of Alaska, his organization and other processors would like a specific inclusion in future programs.

The House language does include processors in the language defining eligible participants in catch share programs.

Groundfish Forum Executive Director Lori Swanson said her group, which largely targets flatfish with bottom trawl catcher-processors, generally supports catch shares as a management tool.

“Since ending the race for fish, our fishery runs year round and our fishermen can target their operations when and where it makes sense.”

Swanson also said the programs have allowed the fleet to work on gear modifications, voluntarily restrict fishing in sensitive areas, and build new vessels.

Oceana counsel Mike Levine also praised the council’s efforts so far to implement ecosystem management, and recommended that ecosystem efforts be supported and expanded.

National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger said the act is working for the NMFS and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“Conservative management measures implemented through the council process have paid off,” Balsiger said.

The council manages federal fisheries offshore from Alaska, such as those in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

Balsiger also noted that North Pacific managers would like to continue to be able to use catch share programs and other limited access tools.

Chris Oliver, executive director of the North Pacific council, made similar comments.

He also suggested that any major changes be region-specific, and not necessarily apply to all councils throughout the country. He also suggested that legislation talk about the intended outcome of a change, rather than prescribing how council’s get to that point.

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Julianne Curry also supported the law, and asked for caution in making any changes.

Fishers respond to changes proposed by House committee

Representatives and managers also addressed some of the changes proposed in the House committee’s draft version of MSA changes, including catch limits, bycatch and electronic monitoring.

One would reduce the information made public about bycatch in federal waters.

Levine, from Oceana, talked about the importance of information availability.

“The oceans are a public resource, managed by public agencies,” Levine said. “And information collected pursuant to that management should be available to the public.”

Oliver did not have time to get to bycatch in presenting the council’s testimony, but referred to the council’s written testimony in noting the council allowed the disclose of weekly bycatch summaries by vessel, he wrote.

“Such information allows us to identify ‘poor performers’ related to salmon bycatch in Bering Sea trawl fisheries, for example, and to remove this allowance for disclosure would be counter to the Council’s policy intent and goals with regard to transparency, accountability, and minimizing bycatch to the extent practicable,” according to the council’s testimony.

Andrew also asked for tighter language mandating bycatch reductions.

“That language is extremely weak and it needs to be further strengthened to make the Magnuson Stevens Act more effective in the enforcement of the bycatch provisions,” Andrew said.

He talked about the challenges of reduced king salmon runs on the Yukon, and the fishery closures subsistence and commercial in-river fishermen have faced there in an effort to make the treaty-mandated escapement to Canada.

“We have our backs against the wall, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee … Our Chinook salmon resources have dwindled down to almost nothing on the Yukon River,” he said.

Begich also addressed one of the proposed changes while talking about the 2006 changes: “Another important improvement is the requirement that catch limits not exceed the fishing levels recommended by the council’s, by their scientific and statistical committees.”

That was part of the last round of amendments and was a requirement based on how Alaska set its limits, but the House has proposed changing that and allowing councils to use more of their own discretion, and rely less on the Scientific and Statistical Committee recommendations when setting annual catches.

Under the MSA, the council cannot choose a harvest level greater than the overfishing limits chosen by the SSC.

Oliver said that proposed House change was, “probably not a good idea from a public policy perspective.”

The House draft also could speed up implementation of electronic monitoring.

Behnken said the Longline Association supports using electronic monitoring in place of human observers on certain vessels.

She talked specifically about the challenges of observers for the small boat fleet, and said that in ALFA’s electronic monitoring pilot program, 94 percent of fish could be identified by species, and the daily cost was about one-third of the observer program’s cost.

Balsiger also talked about the cooperative research being done by NMFS and the fishing industry to see how electronic monitoring can work, and said some is planned for 2014, with more expected in 2015.

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

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