Data Visualization

Reversing Course

H.R. 4742 undermines progress in rebuilding U.S. fish populations

U.S. fish populations, some of the best-managed in the world, are on the rebound. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing conservation of U.S. ocean fisheries, 34 depleted populations have been rebuilt since 2000. Over the same period, the number of stocks subject to overfishing (the problem of catching fish faster than they can reproduce) has decreased from 72 in 2000 to 28. But a shortsighted bill advancing in the U.S. House of Representatives could undermine the significant progress our nation has made in ending and preventing overfishing, rebuilding unhealthy fish populations, and incorporating science into conservation decisions.

On May 23, Representative “Doc” Hastings (R-WA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced H.R. 4742 to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act. On May 29, that committee held a markup of the bill and reported it to the full House. Rather than build on the recent progress in managing our fish populations, the measure, as currently drafted, would roll back key conservation provisions that have made the Magnuson- Stevens Act a science-based model for the world. Those provisions were bipartisan and overwhelmingly supported in Congress, as well as by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, during the 1996 and 2006 reauthorizations of the act. Additionally, Hastings’ bill would undermine keystone federal laws that help conserve and manage our public resources and natural heritage. The bill also would do nothing to advance ecosystem-based fisheries management, needed to directly address emerging challenges stemming from decades of overfishing, habitat destruction, and climate change.

More specifically, if enacted H.R. 4742 would:

Cripple the rebuilding of vulnerable fish stocks by establishing broad loopholes.

H.R. 4742 would provide fishery managers with a long list of broad exemptions they could use to avoid setting reasonable timelines for rebuilding depleted fish populations. It would also replace the legal requirement to rebuild in as short a time as “possible,” with one that requires rebuilding as soon as “practicable”—a subtle but problematic change that in effect would replace the scientifically valid methods for determining how quickly a stock can be rebuilt with a subjective judgment that could lead to confusion and delay. Scientists have shown that rebuilding timelines bring about effective action and are important to quickly restoring depleted populations.

Create exemptions from setting science-based catch limits for many fish that are important to the ocean food web.

H.R. 4742 would allow fishery management councils to exempt many species from the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s requirement to set science-based fishing limits, the provision that is most responsible for our success in restoring fish populations and ending overfishing. This bill could exempt many of the species that serve as food for marine life or are directly caught by commercial and recreational fishermen. These should be actively managed using the best available science. This could weaken the vitality of ocean ecosystems, making them less able to withstand their changing ocean environment.

Undercut the authority of other key environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

H.R. 4742 would give precedence to the Magnuson-Stevens Act over the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Antiquities Act of 1906, and the Endangered Species Act in cases where ocean fish are affected by these laws. As fishery managers often lack the expertise or capacity to appropriately balance and fulfill the legal conservation mandates and technical requirements of these laws, this would likely undermine protections for endangered species as well as rare and essential ocean habitats. Similarly, it would undercut our nation’s proven process for evaluating the broad environmental impacts of fishery management decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act, instead putting the fishing industry-dominated councils in charge of a weaker review process that would be less accountable to the public. Key differences in the process would include limiting opportunities for public input, giving the councils the sole authority to determine which alternatives to analyze, and reducing the ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct a complete environmental impact analysis.

Allow overfishing on depleted fish populations.

H.R. 4742 would allow fishery managers to establish emergency regulations that could be used to extend overfishing on vulnerable populations, even those included in a rebuilding plan. This would continue to deplete these populations, making the task of restoration more difficult and delaying the achievement of abundant, sustainable fish populations.

Complicate management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

H.R. 4742 extends state jurisdiction from 3 miles to 9 miles offshore of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama for recreational management of red snapper. This would likely create confusion in efforts to restore red snapper and other snappers and groupers caught together at the same time. Additionally, commercial fishermen, who have taken considerable steps to prevent overfishing and stay within their catch limits, would be penalized by less stringent state recreational management. This proposal could ultimately destabilize the fishery and undermine the steps that led to its recent rebound. Finally, Hastings’ committee approved an added provision that would take responsibility for conducting stock assessments for reef fish managed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council out of its hands. This would create significant challenges for integrating science into management decisions for a number of critically important Gulf species.

Further restrict public access to data collected by government-funded scientists and programs.

H.R. 4742 would restrict the public—including fishermen, nongovernmental organizations, and academic scientists—from accessing basic fishery information, much of which is collected with taxpayer support. Such information is essential for the public to effectively participate in the management process. Just as troubling, federally funded fisheries data could not be used for management purposes under other federal laws that govern how marine resources are managed. This would lead to less-informed decisions and possibly result in greater restrictions on fishing activities if data that documents the effect of these actions cannot be considered for management of other ocean wildlife.

Fail to incorporate ecosystem-based fishery management approaches.

We should build on the success of the law in restoring individual fish populations and incorporate a more comprehensive approach that protects ocean habitats, reduces wasteful bycatch (the incidental catch of nontarget ocean wildlife), strengthens the management of forage fish by accounting for the important role they play in ocean ecosystems, and requires ecosystem planning. These additions will enhance the resilience of ocean ecosystems and better allow them to support fish populations and coastal communities in the face of a changing climate.

Unfortunately, H.R. 4742 would reverse course for our nation’s fish, fisheries, and coastal communities. Please oppose H.R. 4742, a bill that should be called the “Empty Oceans Act” for threatening the future of our marine environment.

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Dave Bard

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202.778.4551