[Press-Register] by Jeff Dute - June 29, 2011
@ 2011 Alabama Live LLC.
A bill introduced in the U.S. House this week seeks to ensure that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Fisheries Service is required to set catch limits based on sound science, the bill's proponents say.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, introduced the bi-partisan legislation (H.R. 2304), known as the Fishery Science Improvement Act. The Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus as well as a broad coalition of conservation, sportfishing and marine industry groups endorse it.
"The sportfishing community is facing an unacceptable situation in which arbitrary deadlines are being allowed to trump the essential need for science-based management of our marine resources," said Congressional Sportsman's Foundation President Jeff Crane.
Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, along with colleagues from Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Maryland, New Mexico, California and Virginia signed on as co-sponsors.
As amended in 2006, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires regional fishery management councils to put in place annual catch limits and accountability measures for every fishery by Dec. 31, 2011, according to a press release from the bill's supporters.
Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements intended to end overfishing by 2011 were predicated on two critical assumptions: NOAA Fisheries would make decisions based on up-to-date and accurate stock assessments; and the agency would improve catch data to better anticipate potential problems in a given fishery.
NOAA has interpreted this requirement to apply to every stock of fish under management, leaving councils with the conundrum of either deleting stocks from management or applying highly restrictive annual catch limits based on very poor or in some cases non-existent data, a FSIA fact sheet states.
To maintain the conservation tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the act would not apply to stocks determined to be overfished.
The legislation has 3 key areas which allow NOAA Fisheries to better conform to the intent of the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson Stevens: ending overfishing based on sound scientific management, according to the fact sheet:
The legislation directs NOAA Fisheries to set annual catch limits and accountability measures only on those stocks of fish for which they have up-to-date scientific information to inform that decision.
The 2 conditions exempting a fishery from the ACL requirements are the lack of a stock assessment in the prior 5 years and the absence of any indication that overfishing is occurring. Under the agency's interpretation of current law, it is planning to establish ACLs on all stocks under management whether or not scientific information exists on the health of the stock. FSIA ensures the agency can manage to the science they have.
FSIA transitions NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils to a science-based fishery management framework. With so many stocks of fish lacking sound scientific data, the agency is currently forced to either remove individual stocks from management or move only selected stocks to an administratively created ecosystem management category. This bill authorizes the administration's informal guidance and broadens the criteria for the designation of a stock's inclusion in the ecosystem category.
NOAA Fisheries is preparing to set annual catch limits and accountability measures for some 528 stocks of fish to meet the deadline of December 31, 2011. FSIA extends the 2011 deadline to 2014 for stocks of fish that are not overfished and allows the agency to implement the act.
F.J. Eike, chairman of CCA Mississippi's governmental affairs committee, said the act is a way of putting the National Marine Fisheries Service on notice that they've got to do their job better.
"We believe the act is a reasonable amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act," Eike said on Saturday. "It basically says that when we have good data, use it; when we don't, let's put off those management decisions until we get it."
He said lack of reliable data is not just an issue in the Gulf of Mexico, but is a problem that has plagued fisheries management nationwide.
Eike said creation of the Marine Recreational Information Program, an alternative to what has long been described by scientists as the "fatally-flawed" Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey, could help with more accurate data.
He also endorsed more fishery-independent sample collection by marine scientists on the water as a way to get a better read on the true status of all of the nations marine fisheries.
Still, Eike could not say at what point everyone would become completely comfortable with marine fisheries data. He said fisheries management will likely always be a "game of probability" with a margin of error that could skew results to a point that some group won't like a decision based on data collected by any means.
"The more I get involved with how the fisheries management system works, the more confused I get with how it works," he said. "I doubt we'll ever get to a place of certainty about data, but we certainly want better methods than we have right now."