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Revisions to federal fisheries act released for public review

Posted: December 26, 2013 - 8:27pm

The act regulating America’s fisheries could see changes under the discussion draft proposed by the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, was up for reauthorization this year but that process won’t be finalized until 2014.

The House Natural Resources Committee released draft legislation Dec. 19 with 30 pages of proposed MSA changes that address several major fisheries issues, including catch share programs, electronic monitoring, rebuilding plans and the term “overfished.”

The draft legislation would authorize the MSA through 2018, and also authorize appropriations for five more years at the current funding level.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of that committee, said the changes will help fisheries managers balance the biological needs of fish and the economic needs of fishermen.

“The purpose of this draft proposal is to gather public input and to see how to best improve and modernize this important law governing fisheries,” Hastings said in an official statement. “This proposal would give regional fishery managers increased flexibility to deal with the complexity of fishery issues and provide economic stability and certainty to fishermen and fishery dependent communities. It also would improve data collection and increase transparency so that management decisions are based on sound science and all who are impacted by this law can have an active role in the process.”

Several of the changes would provide fisheries managers with more flexibility, which is what stakeholders asked for during a series of hearings held about the act, according to the committee statement released with the draft.

One such change would allow regional fishery management councils — such as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — to phase rebuilding plans in over a three-year period “to lessen economic harm to fishing communities.” That would apply in “highly dynamic fisheries.”

It would also change the time for rebuilding stocks. Currently, rebuilding plans are required to restore a stock’s status to a healthy state within 10 years. Under the draft language, rebuilding plans would need to rebuild the stock in the amount of time that it would take to rebuild without any fishing, plus the average lifecycle of the species.

The change would also allow certain exceptions — for instance, if that time frame threatened another stock or caused significant economic harm it would not necessarily apply. A council could also stop fishery changes under a rebuilding plan if a stock seemed to recover more quickly.

The legislation would also swap the term “overfished” out of the MSA, and use “depleted” instead.

According to the text of the bill, that change is meant to allow for a distinction between fisheries that are depleted because of fishing, and those that are depleted because of other factors.

The act also specifies that compliance with the MSA will fulfill National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

Pacific Seafood Processors Vice President Vince O’Shea wrote that the change is beneficial because it will streamline the management process.

The legislation also addresses data confidentiality and transparency.

O’Shea said harvesters and processors will also benefit from strengthened confidentiality provisions in the draft language.

The language also details that any information collected can be used for determinations in a catch share program.

The changes would also require the Secretary of Commerce to work with the regional councils to develop electronic monitoring regulations within six months of implementation, and would limit the use of electronic monitoring for law enforcement.

At the council level, the draft language calls for audio, video and a complete transcript of each council and Scientific and Statistical Committee meeting to be available within 30 days of the meeting.

Catch share programs also would be adjusted under the draft legislation.

The law would define catch share programs in regulation, and give processors a spot at the table as future programs are developed.

Catch share programs allocate shares of the total harvest to individual owners, typically based on catch history. Generally, the programs are intended to end the race for fish and give vessels a better way to minimize prohibited species catch.

The definition proposed by the House would allow for allocations to individuals, cooperatives, communities, sectors, processors and regional fishery organizations.

Previously, there was no blanket definition that included processors, although the Act enabled consideration of processors in determining community impacts, assessing community and regional association participation in quota programs, and allowed for processor quota in specific programs.

O’Shea wrote in an email that the change wouldn’t add anything new in the act because processors have been eligible for harvest shares previously, but this does redefine individual fishing quota systems to call them “catch shares.”

“Our hope would be that the final Bill will include broader authority for the Councils to incorporate processors in various rationalization programs, such as (American Fisheries Act) style cooperatives,” O’Shea wrote on behalf of the organization.

Processors have been included in past programs, with specific congressional authorization, but a 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration legal opinion stated that processing was not fishing, and thus not eligible for a quota shares under the MSA for any programs created by a regional fishery management council.

In Alaska, the Bering Sea pollock and crab programs implemented in 2002 and 2005 include processors, but the Gulf of Alaska rockfish program, which was renewed for 10 years in 2012, does not. The original rockfish pilot program included linkages between fishermen and their historic processors for deliveries, but based on the 2009 legal opinion from NOAA, the North Pacific council severed those linkages when it renewed the program.

Kodiak processors sued in 2012 to attempt to reverse that action and revert to the pilot rockfish program rules, but were denied before the summary judgment phase of the case when a federal judge ruled that they could not sue under the National Environmental Policy Act alleging only economic harm under the new rules.

The Kodiak processors argued that not including them in quota allocations shifted all the benefits of rationalization to the fishermen and forced them to pay a higher price per pound to compete for deliveries.

Language that specifically allows processors to be allocated a share of the fishery, however, could change how the council crafts a future Gulf of Alaska rationalization program. It could also change the rockfish program, which could be revised when it sunsets.

The draft also changes the referendum program under which fishermen in certain regions must approve catch share plans.

Currently, the New England and Gulf of Mexico councils cannot create a individual fishing quota program unless two-thirds of fishermen eligible to participate vote in favor of it. Under the changed language, “a majority” must vote in favor of the program.

Now, the House committee is taking comment on the proposed changes at magnusonstevens@mail.house.gov. A hearing on the legislation is expected in January, according to a Dec. 12 statement from Hastings.

The Senate is also working on its own version of the legislation.

Rep. Don Young’s press secretary Matt Shuckerow wrote in an email that the law has a proven track record in the North Pacific.

“The draft legislation provides a strong basis to build a reauthorization through many widely supported improvements of a national scope, including providing Councils greater flexibility in managing their fisheries,” Shuckerow wrote.

Alaskans are encouraged to provide Alaska-specific suggestions directly to Young’s office, as well, according to Shuckerow.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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