The U.S. House this evening began debate on a bill by Alaska Congressman Don Young to renew the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s primary fishing law. Actually, lawmakers just debated how they’re going to debate the legislation. Meanwhile, the White House has issued a policy statement criticizing Young’s bill, suggesting the president would veto it.
The White House, like environmental groups and some small-boat fishermen, disapproves of the flexibility written into Young’s bill. It would give regional management councils more leeway to set catch limits and rebuild stocks. The White House says Young’s flexible approach would put fish stocks at risk. Young spokesman Matthew Shuckerow says the Congressman is still listening to stakeholders and he says the bill is likely to change in the legislative process ahead.
“We believe, and Congressman Young believes, it’s entirely premature for the president to discuss vetoing the legislation at this time,” Shuckerow said.
Young says some regions of the country don’t have enough fish data to employ the rigid science-based model that’s been so successful in the North Pacific. Critics, though, say if catch limits aren’t tied to science, councils will be pressured to let fishermen take too much, depleting the resource.
That very debate played out on the other side of the Capitol today, in a Senate subcommittee hearing on fisheries data. Sen. Kelly Ayotte , R-N.H., made a passionate plea for the cod fishermen of New England. Their catch limit, the senator says, was slashed 75 percent in a single year.
“And then when I look back over the course of five years, the total cut is 95 percent. I do not know a business that could take a 95 percent cut and continue to operate,” she said.
Kathryn Sullivan, the head of NOAA (and, incidentally, the first American woman to walk in space) told Ayotte she does care about fishermen, but she says the cod of New England are in dire trouble, in danger of never recovering.
“We’re obliged by law to set catch limits that ensure we do not have over fishing occurring on a stock, and with a stock that’s at 3 percent of its biomass. That is a disasterously low number,” she said.
Ayotte says that’s not her only duty: “You’re also obliged by law to think about the economic impact.”
Ayotte says the fishermen have no confidence in NOAA’s grim stock assessment because it doesn’t match what they’re seeing on the water. The NOAA Administrator told her there’s a place for fishermen’s observations, but it’s not always the most accurate picture.
“Cod are known to school in very large aggregations and when they aggregate that way it becomes easier to catch the fish and that can give … sometimes a false impression,” she said.
A Senate bill to renew the Magnuson Stevens Act hasn’t emerged yet. The full House is likely to begin debate on Young’s version of the bill in early June, after the Memorial Day recess.