Magnuson-Stevens: Concerns Abound Over Exempting Fisheries Decisions From NEPA

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will likely recommend some significant changes to the current version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act — but not during its meeting in Sitka.

Council members have concerns over amendments that would exempt fisheries decisions from the National Environmental Policy Act, and open the door to potentially biased science.

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The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a huge law. It spells out the management of all fisheries in the United States that occur more than three miles offshore. Magnuson-Stevens created the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the seven other regional councils that set the rules and regulations around the country.

It’s no surprise then, that council members would take an interest in HR 1335, the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act which just passed the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by Alaska Congressman Don Young.

And other politicians have taken an interest as well.

“This issue seems to be drawing down support for HR 1335 at the presidential level.”

This is council executive director Chris Oliver, referring to President Obama’s recent letter threatening to veto Magnuson-Stevens, since the House Bill substitutes a new set of environmental standards for fisheries decisions, in place of the standards used under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

NEPA is an important law, too, in its own right. It’s the reason we have Environmental Impact Statements for major decisions regarding the country’s resources.

Oliver told the council that he’s been working for years on streamlining the NEPA-Magunson process, rather than develop a new one. He’d told the council he’d prefer to go with “the devil you know.”

“The fear is that we’re going to set up an extremely complicated process under Magnuson, the implementation of which is going to be subject to implementing regulations or guidelines. In essence, we’re going to end up doing the same thing within the Magnuson Act that we’re doing in our current process, which — while I don’t think it’s the perfect process — we’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

With a presidential veto looming, council members did not offer any pushback against Oliver’s plans to restore the NEPA process to Magnuson Stevens. However, they were more vocal about amendments proposed by Alaska congressman Don Young to the bill — especially this language:

“Fisheries management is most effective when it incorporates information provided by governmental and nongovernmental sources, including State and Federal agency staff, fishermen, fishing communities, universities, and research institutions…”

This is sort of a preamble. The deal-breaker for the council comes next:

“As appropriate, such information should be considered the best scientific information available and form the basis of conservation and management measures as required by this Act.”

Council member Duncan Fields, from Kodiak, suggested asking Congressman Young for clarification. How would traditional knowledge — or information accrued over generations by Alaska’s Natives — fare under this amendment?

“It would be hard for me to support a position, for the council to say sort of out-of-hand, we’re not going to consider traditional knowledge, for example, relative to a particular issue and a particular context.”

Ron Hyder, from Oregon, sits on the council’s Legislative Committee. He suggested asking  for a report on this amendment before the council takes a hard position.

“It didn’t even occur to me in this that we might be including traditional knowledge. Because we not only accept, we look for ways to get traditional knowledge into our considerations.”

But it wasn’t just a question of whether traditional knowledge might be discounted, it was also a question of whether the council would be compelled to consider   any information available as “the best science.” This struck some members as intrusive.

Council member Jim Balsiger is the regional director for NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

“This council has a long record of accepting information from everyone, and it needs to go through the SSC (Scientific and Statistical Committee). So my whole thought on that was allowing information from anyone outside the normal process raises questions. That’s what I thought we were looking for.”

The SSC is the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee.

Council director Chris Oliver concurred. He saw no harm to the council process if the language about “best science” were struck. He suspected that it originated in conflicts in the Gulf of Mexico, where there was greater distrust of government-sponsored science.

The final recommendations from the council on changes to the Magnuson Stevens Act won’t be made until another committee — the CCC, or Council Coordination Committee — meets later this month.