(News Analysis) May 9, 2013
After three days at the Managing our Nations Fisheries Conference in Washington DC, there is clearly no overriding fisheries reform issue that is going to get resolved quickly through new NOAA or congressional action.
This is a very positive outcome, and reflects a sense of stability about US fisheries management.
First, the conference was extremely well organized, and the full materials are available at the conference website:
The overall tone of the conference reflected the success that the 2006 revision of Magnuson has had in setting in place a sustainable approach to US fisheries. There was a recognition that applying harvest limits to virtually all fisheries, and implementing catch share type allocation systems in many fisheries, has had a hugely positive impact on eliminating overfishing, and on reducing bycatch and impacts on non-target species.
However, seven years after the 2006 bill, there are a number of things that the 8 regional management councils would like to see improved.
The conference did not come to any conclusions - but instead the discussions set the stage for the lobbying and back and forth with NOAA, and in Congress, that will result in updates to the National Standards - the enabling language on which the councils act - and on possible changes to the Magnuson bill when the new authorization is achieved.
Changes in NOAAs interpretation of the Act under their regulatory authority are likely to happen far more quickly, and with good result, that the changes to Magnuson Act itself, which will be a monumental multi-year task.
The following are some of the brief issue summaries and positions discussed at the conference.
There is a strong push by the recreational fishing interests to get a larger share of public fisheries resources. This came out in the following ways:
-a request that recreational fishing not be treated with hard caps, but with a more flexible approach to effort -a request that the status or importance of recreational fishing be upgraded in the Magnuson Stevens Act. -a request that allocations between commercial and recreational interests not be fixed, but be subject to reviews.
One finding is that the councils should encourage more direct discussions between sectors at the regional level, and that these allocation issues be worked out at that level without changing the national legislation or standards.
Expect the recreational lobby to push Congress hard for more protections in the next authorization.
Pew has been working on a national campaign to try and get special protections for forage fish written into Magnuson. They say these protections would be a first step towards ecosystem management.
Towards this end, there was a Lenfest study of forage fish, not peer reviewed, that suggested these fish - things like herring, menhaden on the East Coast and Gulf, California sardines - have a higher economic value left in the water as prey species than fished for bait or reduction. That study called for fishing on forage fish species at half the level of other fish stocks - i.e. far below the MSY fishing level.
One whole session of the conference was devoted to forage fish. The outcome was that there was not a consensus to either change the law or to put forward specific measures. The counter argument was that current law and council authority was sufficient to manage these fisheries, and that no changes are needed.
In the final review of the sessions this morning, one of the most telling moments for me was when Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for Pew, challenged the fact that the rapporteur had not reported a consensus on the forage fish measures, but instead reported the disagreements. It was obvious that Pew had hoped that the final conference proceedings would reflect their views on forage fish - and it seems that this may not happen.
I interviewed Lee Crockett on this issue as well as Magnuson flexibility, and will have subsequent reports on this next week.
One of the key points of consensus was that all the regional councils felt they needed more flexibility in achieving the ten year rebuilding timelines mandated in the 2006 law.
There were a number of presentations about the disruptive effects of relying on a single assessment that could throw a previously rebuilding fishery off its timeline, and then get reversed the following year.
This extreme variability from year to year is one of the chief complaints in New England. The reason is that all stock surveys are in fact estimates, and produce a range of interpretation, and therefore there was a lot of support for moving to a less volatile system.
Ideas for this include multi-year targets for ACLs and allowing more mixed stock exemptions which would temporarily allow higher fishing rates on choke stocks in some cases, so long as the stock was not below its minimum threshold.
Reform of the ten year time line appears to be one of the areas of strong interest at the conference - but again this approach is opposed by Pew, which argues in a paper that changes in this direction would represent weakening of Magnuson. This will likely be a focus of the congressional fight.
Timing of Magnuson
There is no indication that reauthorization of Magnuson is on a fast track, despite the claim by Rep. Hastings on the first day that he would like to see it done this year. It is not going to happen.
In a kind of boilerplate speech last night, Sen. Begich from Alaska, who has jurisdiction over Magnuson in the Senate, said that there may be some regional hearings beginning this year.
But without any consensus on which changes are needed, and also little sense that their are urgent problems to change, these appears little possibility that Magnuson reauthorization will be taken up in earnest very soon.
Instead, there will be much more focus on lobbying NOAA to make improvements in how it interprets current law, including possible revisions to language of the ten national standards.
There was talk at the conference about the importance of economic stability for fisheries -- both staying in their markets, and also there are some who would like to see a US type of certification. The basis of this is that a US fishery, which meets all ten national standards, would be certifiable under many criteria of sustainability, and NOAA should be promoting that.
Environmentalists at the conference objected, saying this would not work because the US standards apply only to the fishery - and dont take into account broader environmental or social factors - which now seem to be the new area in which private certification schemes are trying to differentiate themselves.
In other words, now that US fisheries are sustainable, we want to change the terms of certification to a broader definition, so that we can continue to be the only legitimate certifiers.
There is little support among the industry participants here for a NOAA certification, but there is a lot of support for NOAA beefing up its communications resources, and doing a much better job of communicating to the public just how successful and sustainable US fisheries have become.
US is not Europe
One other element of this, repeated in several sessions of the conference, was that the US is not Europe, and does not have the same problems.
First, with regard to certification and governmental failure to protect the sustainability of fisheries, the US has acted, while the private certification schemes are mostly centered in Europe where the governments have failed to act.
Second, with IUU fishing, Europe has a much greater problem with IUU fishing than does the US. A large portion of European tuna and sardines come from West Africa, for example, where IUU fishing is rampant.
The US uses only a small proportion of global wild fisheries, and the problem areas are much much less than the supply chains that go into Europe.
So there was some sense in the conference that the US should not be continually pushed to adopt Euro-centric solutions to problems that are far deeper and entrenched in Europe than they are in the U.S.
Overall this has been an extremely positive conference, and we will be reporting in more detail on specific areas - such as local control of fisheries, five year reviews of allocation decisions etc.
There is a definite attempt, and a legitimate one, by environmental organizations to try and set the overall agenda for NOAA fisheries - and this conference showed me that NOAA was capable of bringing together a wide range of stakeholders - and asserting their governmental role as managers, with responsibilities to promote US fisheries in a sustainable way that did not lose sight of the commercial industry they serve.