Senate releases new draft of fisheries act

The newest draft of the Magnuson-Stevens Act proposes changes to fisheries management including new fees, sustainability standards, and a possible national marketing effort.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard chaired by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich released the latest draft version of the act July 21.

The act, or MSA, provides the framework for fisheries management in federal waters from three to 200 miles offshore. It also authorizes the regional fishery management councils, including the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that makes decisions for federal waters offshore from Alaska.

The act is up for reauthorization, and both the House and Senate have released amended versions.

North Pacific Fishery Management Council Executive Director Chris Oliver said the newest draft seemed responsive to the council’s comments on the prior draft, which the Senate subcommittee released in April.

Oliver said he planned to review the draft, and then work with the council on how it would respond.

Generally, the council and others in Alaska’s fishing industry have said that the current act is working well, and major changes are not needed as North Pacific fisheries are already managed with some of the provisions included in the new draft.

One such element would enable councils to charge a fee for management programs that allocate a percentage of the total allowable catch, or TAC, among sectors.

Oliver said that the National Marine Fisheries Service is already working on that in Alaska, although the new provision could bring a few more fisheries into such fee a collection program.

Exactly how the draft language could affect various sectors — or which ones might have fees added — isn’t clear yet, Oliver said.

In some fisheries, such as the Gulf of Alaska rockfish program, NMFS already collects a cost-recovery fee for management. Fees also already exist for individual fishing quota programs for halibut and crab.

Freezer longline vessels operating in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands work through voluntary cooperatives; whether or not those would be included in a new fee program is not yet known, Oliver said.

The draft also requires a report on a North Pacific Observer fund and other funds supported by fishery fees.

Another element in the draft would allow the National Marine Fisheries Service to use money received from law enforcement to pay for stock assessments, surveys and other data collection efforts necessary for managing fisheries.

The language also addresses data collection efforts beyond funding, calling for more data and analysis of recreational fisheries and requiring stock assessments to be completed at least every five years, and in some instances more often, although there’s also a provision allowing the Secretary of Commerce to change the timing.

Alaska, where half the U.S. seafood harvest is taken, has a more robust stock assessment program than other parts of the nation, however, so that likely won’t change how they are scheduled here.

The Senate draft also adjusts the language about overfished fisheries, so that it refers to overfished or otherwise depleted fisheries throughout, instead of just overfished. The change in language acknowledges that some fisheries may be depleted from causes other than overfishing.

The draft also includes a provision that would allow more flexibility in the rebuilding timelines for depleted fisheries. Currently, stocks must be rebuilt in 10 years. The changed language mentions 10 years, but also for a longer duration if biology or environmental conditions require it.

The prior draft included language that allowed harvest reductions to be implemented over time to lessen the economic impact of the restrictions; the current draft does not specifically allow that.

Flexibility in rebuilding timelines is something the North Pacific council has supported, although Oliver said it likely wouldn’t have an immediate impact in Alaska.

Previously, the rebuilding timeline for Pribilof blue king crab has been as issue.

Like the prior Senate draft, the newest version would add more consideration of subsistence fisheries and incorporate them into management decisions, and adds references to tribal governments throughout.

The draft also adds Tribes to the language about disaster relief, and requires a decision on disaster declarations to be made within 90 days after a economic impact estimate is received.

Another element that was maintained in the new Senate language is a provision that would allocate 10 percent of any new Arctic fisheries to new Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups. The current CDQ groups represent communities along the Bering Sea and hold quota in Bering Sea fisheries; new Arctic quota would go to communities north and east of the Bering Strait.

The draft also includes a directive to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to consider a national seafood marketing program, including possible funding mechanisms, and could establish a sustainability standard for America’s fisheries.

That standard would assert that fish caught in accordance with the act, and not overfished or otherwise depleted, was considered sustainable.

Another element of the draft sets certain standards for information about fish, making it illegal to falsify fishing records and labels.

The draft language also would increase the penalties for civil and criminal violations of the act.

Other provisions in the new draft likely won’t apply to Alaska’s fisheries.

A prior draft required regular reviews of allocations in mixed stock fisheries; the new Senate draft narrows that provision, so that it applies primarily on the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, and not in Alaska.

Another provision that will apply in those areas, but have little affect in Alaska, changed the allowable management tools for recreational fisheries.

The new version removed some elements of the initial Senate draft, including a section about ecosystem planning, and one about focusing assets on improving fisheries.

However, the training for new council members would include a section on ecosystem planning, under the new draft.

It also removes a provision from the prior Senate version that would have required the Secretary of Commerce to prepare a report on cost reductions in fisheries management.

Overall, the new Senate draft is shorter than the old one.

“This shorter, revised draft incorporates many comments from Alaskans and others around the nation who responded to our initial discussion draft in April,” said Begich in a formal statement. “I hope the public will review these changes and get back to me soon so we can advance to the next step in the process.  That’s why I posted the revised draft online — so everyone has the opportunity to review it and send their comments to my office or to the committee website.”

The Senate version has not yet been formally introduced, although the House passed a version through its Natural Resources Committee.

11/22/2016 - 2:13pm