House committee takes more input on MSA reauthorization

At the most recent hearing on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, testimony focused largely on rebuilding efforts, underutilized stocks and a national seafood sustainability certification.

Witnesses from the commercial and sport fishing sectors, as well as scientists and representatives of nongovernment organizations, talked about several fishery management issues they’d like to see addressed at a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing Sept. 11.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, regulates management of federal fisheries from three miles to 200 miles offshore. It was implemented in 1976, and most recently updated in 2006. Alaska’s delegation has said that a reauthorization likely won’t come until next year.

In his opening comments, Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., touched on a number of topics that could show up in the revisions, including the information available about sport fishing harvest and efforts, the confidential and proprietary nature of some fisheries data collection efforts and flexibility in rebuilding periods for certain stocks.

As is, Hastings said, the rebuilding periods sometimes cause economic hardships for communities, and some flexibility could be beneficial.

Hastings’ points were echoed in testimony from several witnesses, most of whom represented Lower 48 fishing interests.

Richard Robins, from the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, addressed the committee about rebuilding plans and other issues the councils face.

He told the committee that the 10-year timeline is not always biologically-sound, and variable timelines might be more beneficial. He also called for the MSA reauthorization language to prioritize minimizing adverse economic impacts of rebuilding plans, and to have a separate mechanism to rebuild stocks that have less information available, known as data-poor stocks. Robins also called for a strategy for addressing mixed-species fisheries, rather than using traditional rebuilding plans.

In his testimony, Robins asked for the reauthorization to address the need for a sustainability certification for stocks managed under the MSA.

“A public affirmation of the core strengths of the U.S. management system would be an important step to facilitate education, awareness, and marketing for the benefit of U.S. fisheries,” he said.

Robins also talked about funding needs, and issues that arise for the councils from data confidentiality requirements, and asked for recreational and subsistence fishing to be defined.

He called for more stable funding mechanisms for research programs, ensuring mandates are funded before adding new ones and providing funding for monitoring and observer programs.

Samuel Rauch, the acting administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, agreed with the call for rebuilding flexibility, and told the committee that both shorter and longer terms are sometimes needed for the plans. He also noted that significant progress has been made in reducing overfishing.

Vito Giacalone, a Gloucester fisherman and member of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, also detailed issues with the New England fisheries, and how the rebuilding plan requirements have not yet been successful.

Giacalone said that factors outside managers’ control — including changing water temperatures — make it difficult to prescribe a set timeline for rebuilding.  

Giacalone attributed many of the challenges to unpredictability, and said that the MSA needs to account for that.

West Coast Seafood Processors Association Executive Director Rod Moore made a similar request for flexibility in the rebuilding plans, and also called for flexibility in catch limits.

Ray Hilbourn, a University of Washington professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences, also talked about rebuilding plans, but said that developing underutilized species is a larger issue in the U.S.

Hilbourn, who noted that he receives research funding from several entities including NOAA and private groups, talked about the purpose of the MSA in rebuilding exploited stocks and developing fisheries for underutilized species, and the balancing of those two goals.

“While we have reduced overfishing, one consequence has been far more underutilized fish stocks and we seem to have lost sight of the actual goals of employment, food supply, recreational opportunity and revenue,” Hilbourn said in his comments, and described underfishing as the major threat to fisheries.

The U.S. loses 1 percent to 3 percent of potential yield by fishing too hard, but 30 to 48 percent by fishing too little, Hilbourn told the committee.

Shifting to a focus on hitting maximum sustained yield for more species could result in greater economic benefits, he said.

Hilbourn also talked about the need for predictability for both the sport and commercial sectors, and concerns about the 10-year timeline for rebuilding stocks.

Another professor, however, John Bruno from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, told the committee that a focus on maximum sustained yield was one of the issues in U.S. fisheries, and a detriment to maintaining fish populations. Bruno also pushed for more ecosystem-based management.

Robins also addressed ecosystem-based management, and asked for consideration in the MSA for the need to fish some species above MSY and some below in order to best utilize an ecosystem-based approach.

The Sept. 11 hearing was the fourth congressional hearing this year.

Rep. Don Young told the Journal this summer that he was listening to the hearings, and didn’t see major changes on the horizon. Once a draft of the MSA is ready, the public will be able to comment on it, he said.

Sen. Mark Begich has said previously to the Journal that he is not ready to weigh in on possible changes until he’s heard from Alaskans through the hearing process.

Begich has hosted three listening sessions in Alaska  — one each in Kodiak, Fairbanks and Kenai, to focus on commercial, subsistence and sport issues, respectively.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

09/19/2013 - 10:34am