MSA reauthorization still stalled with 2018 House bill expired
More than a decade has passed since the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act was signed into law, but the latest effort has stalled in Congress.
The act, originally passed in 1974, is the nation’s landmark legislation on federal fisheries policy. In the intervening years, Congress has passed a number of reauthorizations, most recently in 2006, tweaking language and adding provisions. The House passed HR 200, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, in July 2018. However, it never progressed through the Senate and thus expired at the end of the 115th Congress.
Young’s bill included a number of new provisions — most notably, changing the word “overfished” throughout the bill to “depleted” — and allowing regional fishery management councils consider economic impacts to communities when determining catch limits.
One of the reasons Young decided to include changing the word “overfished” to “depleted” was to recognize non-fishing impacts on stock abundance, said Zack Brown, Young’s press secretary.
“The term ‘overfish’ implies that our commercial fishing industry alone has the potential to impact fish stocks and the overall health of our marine ecosystems,” Brown wrote in an email. “’Depleted’ is a far more comprehensive term that takes a broader and more evidence-based assessment of the risks to marine life.”
The language change applies in a situation like the St. Matthew’s Island blue king crab stock. The stock hasn’t been fished since the 2016-17 season because of low abundance, and only four years overall since 1999, but was declared overfished in October 2018 because the estimated biomass was below the minimum stock size threshold specified for the crab fishery management plan.
A protected area was established in 2008 and expanded in 2010 to include blue king crab habitat. The MSA requires a stock rebuilding plan to be established for overfished stocks, and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted a purpose and need statement for the rebuilding plan at its June meeting in Sitka.
But it’s not just fishing affecting the stock. Stock projections show recruitment in the St. Matthew’s blue king crab stock falling since the mid-1990s. Fishing and bycatch have played roles in the fishery’s decline, but fisheries have been restricted or closed off and on since 1999, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Environmental factors on the populations may be at play impacting the stock, according to a report to the council.
Young wanted the language to reflect threats to stocks beyond just fishing pressure, Brown said.
“While using the term ‘depleted’ still allows for oversight of fishermen, it also encompasses other potential threats such as predation and ocean acidification,” he said.
Young’s bill would have also granted more flexibility to councils in crafting rebuilding plans to account for species’ lifecycles. The current MSA requires stocks to be rebuilt within 10 years of being declared overfished, which may not be possible for certain species.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed with allowing for the term “depleted” to be used in the act to account for cases like the St. Matthew’s blue king crab, but didn’t agree with the proposed change of including economic impact to communities in the determination of catch limits, according to a February 2019 letter to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.
The letter, signed by council chairman Simon Kinneen, noted that the measure would tilt the development of harvests away from their scientific basis. The council would have two choices: ask the Scientific and Statistical Committee to consider social and economic consequence, driving it away from science, or close fisheries early before the total allowable catch has been reached, according to the letter.
“Incorporating social and economic factors into the determination of annual catch limits as proposed in the draft will severely impact the conservation and management of resources in the North Pacific by increasing scientific and management uncertainty and reducing public transparency and participation in the decision-making process,” Kinneen wrote. “From our perspective, this may be a cure in search of a problem.”
Though HR 200 expired with the last Congress, some elements made it into law as a separate bill: the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018, or Modern Fish Act. The rest of the provisions will have to start from scratch back in the House, likely with some edits, Sullivan noted in an email.
“With the changeover in the House leadership, I expect the Democratic majority will have their own priorities and will want to advance their own legislation on this, and other topics,” he wrote.
Sullivan agreed with the inclusion of the language change from “overfished” to “depleted,” noting the North Pacific council’s support. He said that while on the whole the MSA has resulted in Alaska’s fisheries dominating the nation, eliminated foreign fishing off Alaska’s coasts and kept stocks from being overfished like those in other regions, there is room for reconsideration as time goes on.
“While I think it’s always healthy to reexamine and update our laws as a matter of course—particularly as technology and science evolve—I have heard from Alaska’s fishermen that my role as a steward of the MSA should largely be that of a doctor practicing the mantra of ‘First, do no harm,’” he wrote.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].