Alaska management untouched under revised Modern Fish Act
Though a landmark piece of fisheries legislation will affect how many Lower 48 federal sportfisheries are managed, there won’t be many changes for Alaska.
President Donald Trump signed the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Act — known as the Modern Fish Act — into law on Dec. 31, 2018. The law revises the management framework for recreational fisheries in federal waters, heralded by supporters as a way of differentiating sportfishing from commercial fishing and providing more fishing opportunity in the recreational sector.
In Alaska, though, the act won’t have much direct impact. Mike Leonard, the vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association, said it’s fair to say the provisions in the bill don’t herald many changes in the Pacific Northwest saltwater sportfisheries.
The final version of the bill itself removed some of the particular provisions directly changing management strategies, but the essential purpose of the bill remains, Leonard said.
“The passage of a bill itself that is focused on saltwater recreational fishing … I don’t know that Congress has ever done that,” he said. “The motivations behind this were to get a recognition within the (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act) that recreational fishing is important but that (commercial and sport) are fundamentally different activities.”
The bill inserts language into the existing MSA stating that recreational and commercial fisheries are “different activities” and science-based management approaches should be developed for both. It also instructs the federal Comptroller General to conduct a study of the allocations within the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fisheries and that the National Academy of Sciences shall study the limited access privilege programs in all council-governed fisheries except for two — the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which governs Alaskan federal fisheries, is specifically exempt from parts of the law, in part because the catch share plans that partition the allowable catch of halibut each year are already established. Those catch share plans are working well in large part, said Andy Mezirow, a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
“I think the problem with catch share plans is when there isn’t enough of the resource, which is the case in many places, or they didn’t build a catch share plan based on other ones … and then you end up with these impossible structures,” he said. “Even though we have our own challenges, they’re very different than those that gave rise to the Modern Fish Act.”
Mezirow signed onto a letter raising concerns about the initial draft of the act, in part because of the act’s intention of shifting away from catch shares. In affected fisheries, the intent is to allow recreational fishery managers to allow sportfishing even without new available survey data.
Advocates said this was to allow the sport sector — which they argue is an inherently different activity than commercial fishing — to continue operating when survey data is deficient.
The initial version of the bill required mandatory five-year reviews of the catch share program and prohibited the establishment of more limited access privilege programs, but both requirements were toned down in the final version of the bill. The initial design of the bill would have also allowed recreational fishery managers who lacked survey data to step away from catch limits, providing more recreational opportunity.
“The part that we really objected to was a component that was removed from it,” Mezirow said. “The problem was that there was some provisions in the Modern Fish Act that if they were applied to the federal fisheries in Alaska, they would create a lot of chaos. And that was the desire to step away from a catch share plan … That didn’t really resonate with us … the idea that you would do less science and give more fish away.”
In Alaska, halibut is managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council with input from Canada via the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The way the recreational halibut fishery is managed already contains some of the principles the authors of the Modern Fish Act aimed for, including more flexibility on catch limits, Mezirow said.
For example, the Gulf of Alaska charter sector has gone over its allowed quota for the past several years, but the fishery is not closed as soon as the catch limit is reached — in part because it would be a harsh restriction on the fishery, and in part because there is no in-season management for the recreational sector.
The commercial sector groups largely removed their objections to the Modern Fish Act when the mandatory allocation review requirements were removed and the language allowing “alternative management measures” was refined, said Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
“(The Modern Fish Act) as first floated or introduced had a plan or included language to allow ‘alternative management’ measures in the recreational sector,” she said. “It left wiggleroom for ‘alternative’ to mean overfishing by the recreational sector. That was our primary concern with (the bill). No one was opposed to designing management measures for the recreational sector that are more well suited to their fishing, but no one supports overfishing.”
Several groups in the commercial sector worked together to educate legislators and the public about the impacts of the original bill as drafted, Behnken said. The commercial sector’s main concern was if the recreational sector was not held to the same scientific data-based management that commercial fishermen are, which could endanger fishing stocks for all users.
“That was where the real hue and cry came from the commercial sector,” she said. “We are all very committed to conserving this resource in the long term. That’s been a bipartisan commitment over the years to manage our fisheries with that as the highest standard.”
The Modern Fish Act amends the Magnuson-Stevens Act, but does not reauthorize it. Behnken said she hopes the Senate will continue the reauthorization process in the upcoming session.
Leonard said the American Sportfishing Association found the process of working with various groups on the Modern Fish Act “interesting,” as it gave stakeholders of all groups a chance to scrutinize a bill that focused solely on recreational fishing as opposed to fishing in general. The group is looking forward to working with the Senate on the MSA reauthorization in the future, he said.
“This is a good start,” he said. “There were several provisions in the original Modern Fish Act that got left behind, just through the nature of working through the legislative process… I think that would likely need to get done through the MSA.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].