House Bill Would Undermine Progress in Rebuilding US Fish Populations

On May 23, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced legislation (H.R. 4742) to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—the primary law governing management of U.S. ocean fish. Today, less than a week later, his committee will vote on the bill. And the outcome of this vote could have wide repercussions for all of those who depend on vibrant, healthy ocean fisheries.

When the Magnuson-Stevens Act was reauthorized in 1996 and 2006, policymakers added strong conservation provisions to end overfishing, require plans to rebuild depleted stocks in as short of time as possible, and incorporate science-based annual catch limits. These efforts enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and were enacted with active participation from the Clinton and Bush administrations. Because of these changes, 34 depleted U.S. fish populations have been rebuilt since 2000.

Unfortunately, the Hastings bill, which some have nicknamed the "Empty Oceans Act" backslides on key conservation principles in current law. Among other concerns, it would:

  • Cripple the recovery of vulnerable fish populations with broad loopholes for setting reasonable rebuilding plan timelines;
  • Put the fishing industry-dominated councils in charge of evaluating and minimizing environmental impacts (instead of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service);
  • Limit opportunities for the public to participate in helping ensure decisions are well-informed;
  • Create exemptions from setting science-based catch limits for many fish important to the ocean food web;
  • Undercut the authority over U.S. ocean fisheries of other key environmental statutes, including the Endangered Species Act; and
  • Fail to incorporate ecosystem-based fishery management approaches into the law.

Congress should reject this shortsighted bill, and instead should advance an ecosystem-based fisheries management approach that protects ocean habitat, reduces wasteful incidental catch of nontarget species (also known as bycatch), accounts for the important role of forage fish in the ocean food web, and requires ecosystem planning to enhance the resilience of ocean ecosystems. These advancements will better enable our oceans—which face a changing climate, habitat loss, and other stresses—to support abundant fish populations and coastal communities. Instead of rolling back conservation provisions that are working to rebuild fish populations after decades of overfishing, we should build upon the act’s recent successes. And I encourage all who are concerned about it to urge their member of Congress to oppose this bill.

Ted Morton directs federal oceans policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Download the Fact Sheet: Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management [PDF].

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