MSA changes focused on flexibility, science

Taking the lead on legislation he’s been involved with since it first passed in 1976, Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young introduced a bill March 4 to reauthorize and amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The act, or MSA, governs all U.S. federal fisheries, which take place in the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, between three and 200 miles off the coast. The MSA was most recently reauthorized and updated in 2006.

Young introduced H.R. 1335 on March 4 with three regional cosponsors: Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., and Amata Coleman Radewagen, R-American Samoa.

Young’s proposed version of the MSA is titled the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.” His philosophy is to let the councils, who have more intimate understandings of their stocks and more responsiveness than the Department of Commerce, have more control of their respective operations, and to update the act to account for better scientific governance and more attention to economic effects.

The revised act has several amendments regarding stock rebuilding protocols, council transparency, catch limits, pollock cooperative quota limits, the definition of “overfished” or depleted stocks, data collection, MSA authority in relation to other federal responsibilities, and the definition and role of subsistence.

The MSA governs eight regional councils in the federal waters off the U.S. coast. Alaska’s waters, fished mainly by fishermen from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest states, fall under the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s authority.

Some changes make provisions for more flexible planning. The plans for rebuilding depleted fisheries will remove the current mandatory 10 years for rebuilding plans and allow councils to phase in rebuilding plans over a three-year period to limit damaging effects to fishing economies.

Some changes expand the MSA’s authority to govern fisheries according to economic needs as well as biological. Under one amendment, councils may take into consideration “changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of the fishing communities” when establishing annual catch limits.

Moving away from overfishing as the main term for depleted stocks is a key part of the new MSA’s revisions to scientific policy.

“They blame any decline in stock to overfishing,” said Young. “That’s not true. There could be climatic changes; there could be something else. We want to give (councils) a more scientific basis.”

Stock rebuilding plans will account for more causes than overfishing, such as predation and environmental variations.

Young’s reauthorization would replace all uses of the word “overfished” with the word “depleted.” Annual reports “shall distinguish between fisheries that are depleted (or approaching that condition) as a result of fishing and fisheries that are depleted (or approaching that condition) as a result of factors other than fishing.”

The distinction is important, as some stocks will decline in the total absence of fishing. Young said his attention was first brought to the difference between terms in the western Aleutian Islands, where certain stocks like Atka mackerel were depleted not due to overfishing, but predation by Steller sea lions.

Some provisions offer more control in setting harvest use caps. In an amendment specific to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Young has authorized the council to set the maximum Bering Sea Pollock harvest use cap for “individuals, corporations, or other entities,” such as cooperatives at no more than 24 percent compared to the previous use cap of 17 percent.

Young said the amendment is intended to allow for profitability for pollock fleets but not over-consolidate to the point of excluding entry into the fishery.

Young’s reauthorization also includes a kind of declaration of sovereignty for the act’s authority to govern fisheries. Under one amendment, any conflict between the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act or the Antiquities Act of 1906 will fall under the authority of the MSA. Any required changes to fisheries under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 will also fall under MSA authority to examine and implement.

“As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that manages fish is the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” said Young. “Not the Antiquities Act. Not monuments. When they set an area off for the Antiquities Act that drives out commercial fishermen, they’re managing for fish. It’s an attempt to get commercial fisheries out of the ocean. They’ll deny it, but they know it.”

Young has vocally opposed the executive authority under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish monuments and antiquities that amount to national parks or wildlife refuges, such as the recently-nominated President Barack Obama proposed on Jan. 25 to set 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, aside as wilderness, effectively halting any oil development. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young all drafted letters of disapproval.

On Jan. 27, Obama also designated 9.8 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as a marine sanctuary, halting oil and gas leasing in those areas as well as ANWR. In 2014, Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Sanctuary.

Only days before the ANWR designation, on Jan. 22, Young introduced H.R. 330. The bill would restrict the president’s authority to independently create national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Council process will be altered to provide for more public transparency and involvement. Council Scientific and Statistical Committees “shall develop such advice in a transparent manner and allow for public involvement in the process.”

The Department of Commerce will maintain a public archive of all Scientific and Statistical Committee audio, video, and transcripts.

Each council itself will be required to make available on its website a webcast, audio recording, or live broadcast of each meeting. Each will also provide audio, video, or a searchable audio or written transcript of each meeting of the Council and of the meetings of committees within 30 days of the meeting’s conclusion.

Any proposed fishery requires a fishery impact statement before implementation. Under Young’s amendment, the impact statement shall “assess, specify, and analyze the likely effect and impact of the proposed action on the quality of the human environment.”

Each statement shall be made available to the public not les than 14 before the final decision takes place.

Another broadly-focused amendment concerns data collection and confidentiality. The amendment would require that the Secretary of Commerce issue regulations for electronic monitoring, and allow for the replacement of onboard monitors with electronic monitoring, if the council has determined that electronic monitoring yields comparable results to the observer program. All regulations regarding electronic monitoring must be issued within one year of the MSA’s reauthorization.

Catch shares in certain regions will require a more democratic process. In the New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico, all catch shares will require a referendum approval by the majority of permits holders eligible to take place in the fishery. In New England, the referendum may include fishing crew members who earn a significant portion of their livelihood from fishing.

Specific to Alaska, Young defines subsistence in his reauthorization, and provides for subsistence fishing experience as criteria for North Pacific council seat selection.

Updated: 
03/25/2015 - 12:39pm

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