By a narrower margin, HR 200 makes it through the House. Now what?

Originally Published Here on Fissues

By Capt. John McMurray

Well, we all expected it.  HR 200, “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” (A.K.A the “Empy Oceans Act”), with a few amendments, including one really bad one, sailed through the House of Representatives last Wednesday.

But the vote, which was expected to be a standard party line division, was quite a bit closer than most thought it would be.  The final tally was 222-193.  Surprisingly close, given the makeup of the house at the moment.  A prior version of the “Empty Oceans Act” passed 224-152 in 2015.  While the Bill’s advocates are spinning it a “bipartisan” win, only 9 democrats voted for it while 15 republicans voted against it.

That’s notable we think, particularly given the resource-intensive campaign waged by what we have no other choice now but to label the shortsighted part of the angling community.  Such efforts appeared to have been blunted.  Moving forward, that’s hopefully a sign that the most extreme proposals in this bill could fail in the more thoughtful, more moderate Senate.

So where are we now?  Well, I’m gonna say this was encouraging for those of us who know that weakening the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Steven’s act is a bad idea.  If almost half of a decidedly anti-regulation, anti-conservation House thinks this may be over the top, well, perhaps the Senate will too.

In no way are we out of the woods though.  Quite the contrary.  This will likely shake a companion bill loose in the Senate.  What that looks like, well, we just don’t know yet.  Stay tuned…

But for now let’s address what the House Committee on Natural Resources claims HR 200 will do, and why those wishing to kill more fish are supporting it.  Will cover striped bass toward the end here.

“Eliminates unscientific timeframes to rebuild fish stocks that unnecessarily restrict access to fisheries”.  

This is misleading.  Currently the Councils must rebuild overfished stocks in a period not to exceed 10 years.  Except “in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement to which the United States is a party dictates otherwise.”

Opponents of the timeframe have been peddling the idea that the 10-year rebuilding mandate in the current law is some sort of arbitrary, non-scientific, overly constraining, industry killer.  It’s not.

For one, if we can rebuild a stock within 10 years, why the hell wouldn’t we?  I think the average American Citizen, fisher or otherwise, would want to see such stocks rebuilt in their lifetimes, particularly since rebuilt stocks benefit everyone rather than a few special interests.

Yes, of course, in some cases, rebuilding constrains the fishing industry, although IMO not unreasonably, but that’s a tradeoff that comes with managing in the public interest, in the “greatest benefit to the Nation.”

Yet, in this specific case what HR 200 does to the rebuilding requirements is not all that damaging.  Remember the “in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions” provision.  HR 200 would replace the existing 10-year default deadline to “Tmin +1” (the minimum time to rebuild the stock with no fishing occurring plus one mean generation).  That basically fits the “biology of the stock” language in current law. “Tmin +1” is pretty close to what managers use now, when the biology of a stock dictates that 10 years isn’t possible.

Yes, this section could delay the rebuilding of some stocks in some cases, but it should be noted that it could also require the Councils to speed up rebuilding in others.  But the reality is that this is close to what we have now.

Yes, we’d like to see the 10-year backstop stay, but taking it out isn’t catastrophic. The intent however, particularly from those who don’t seem to fully grasp the current law, is to extend rebuilding, so they can kill more fish now.  And that’s only slightly irritating.

Now that we’ve got the “unscientific” nonsense out of the way.  Here’s the really bad stuff in this part of the Bill.

HR 200 exempts fisheries from rebuilding that have been “overfished” as a result of factors outside a Regional Fishery Management Council’s Jurisdiction.  That would include things like impacts from  dams, water quality, habitat loss in state waters.  It would also include environmental drivers such as climate change.  Other exemptions include if the stock is in a mixed-stock fishery but rebuilding it would cause economic harm to the fishery, if fishing occurs on the stock outside of the U.S., and if “unusual events” have occurred.

This is a slippery slope.  Councils won’t need to make an effort to rebuild if there are things affecting those fisheries they claim are out of their control, like, well, everything.

I mean come on man.  Let’s be real.  Anyone who has sat through more than few Council meetings knows that with such exemptions, under what’s often immense political pressure to allow unsustainable fishing, Councils will avoid rebuilding in almost every circumstance.

All it takes is a quick look at the history of fishery management to see how this is going to work out.  When rebuilding without hard timelines was attempted in the early incarnations of the Magnuson Act, such rebuilding plans regularly failed to make progress.

Moving on, HR 200 contains similar exemptions for Annual Catch Limits and Accountability Measures if such limits are exceeded

It would exempt hundreds of species by including loopholes for “Ecosystem component” species, which include any fish caught that were not a main target. This would remove sustainable limits on any bycatch, either sold or discarded.

It would also exempt stocks of short-lived species (half of any year class survives for less than 18 months) for which fishing has “little impact” on the stock. How they will determine that, I don’t know.  Whether or not fishing has “little impact” is of course highly subjective.

Further exempted are stocks for which international fishing has an impact on stock.

So really, there’s an exemption for just about every circumstance.

Perhaps most egregious is that it allows consideration of “environmental changes” and “economic needs” when setting Annual Catch Limits.  Of course, such consideration is already included in the “Optimum Yield” definition; yet it’s clear here that the intent is to place the blame on environmental changes, and to put economic concerns before the biology of the stock when determining Annual Catch Limits.

Again, this is not good.

HR 200 Provides flexibility for fishery managers to apply alternative management strategies better suited to regional needs and specific fish stocks.”

This is not true.  Councils have always had the “flexibility” to use “alternative management strategies,” i.e. managing on fishing mortality rates instead of hard quotas. Such management measures just have to keep harvest under a science-based “annual catch limit.” And the law wisely requires “accountability measures” if there are overages.

This bill, however, doesn’t stipulate those annual-catch-limit and accountability measure requirements.  In other words, it could allow the use of alternative management measures that would result in, well, overfishing.  And that is not good.

Includes critical reforms advocated by the sportsman community to allow for proper management of recreational fisheries.

Half-truth. It’s been a very specific subset of the sport-fishing community that’s advocated for such “reforms.”

Make no mistake. This subset has become the kill more part of the “sportsman community.” We should be very clear that the sole intent of such reforms is to simply get around some of the constraining provisions of current law, so they can kill more stuff.  Anyone who claims otherwise ain’t telling the truth.

A lot of us, industry and anglers, don’t want such “reforms.”  Because we understand they are bad for the long-term sustainability of sport-fishing in general, not to mention communities that rely on it.

And regarding the “proper management” of recreational fisheries?  We would argue that developing exemptions and loopholes that would allow overfishing and would essentially release the recreational sector from accountability is not good for us.  It’s not good for anyone really.  Overfished/depleted stocks punish anglers more than constraining regulations.  Dilling up coolers ain’t why most of us do this.  It’s about the on-the-water experience.  And to have a “good” experiance we need some, ahem, a lot of fish in the water..  While the commercial folks will be fine for a while with their nets etc, those average Joe hook-and-line guys will suffer when stocks decline.

Provides necessary support for stock assessments, cooperative research and fisheries science to empower NOAA to prioritize its core mission of health fisheries management and achieving maximum sustainable yield.

I’m not clear on how it does this.  There is a section that requires the Secretary to develop a “stock assessment plan” to assess all stocks in all the Council’s Fishery Management Plans.

Of course, more frequent, updated, better stock assessments would be great… IF the NOAA Fisheries Science Centers had unlimited resources. But we’ve heard them say on record, more than once that they don’t, and it’s very unlikely they’ll get more funding/staff from congress.

But what’s concerning is that this section includes language that could elevate the status of data collected from “non-traditional sources” as “best available science,” and creates a platform for increasing inclusion of such non-traditional data sources into stock assessments and other management documents.

While everyone supports the inclusion of more data and the improvement of stock assessments, there is nothing terribly specific about the quality of data. If the intent is to include data that is anecdotal, hasn’t been peer-reviewed etc., then this would be bad.

The Zeldin Amendment

Lastly, I’ve got to add that Congressman Zeldin from Eastern Long Island, slipped in an Amendment that lifts the ban on striped bass fishing federal waters between Montauk and Block Island.  Such area has been closed since the mid-80s, and is well known for being a haven for those larger older fish we should be trying to protect right now.  It is not an over-exaggeration to say that 95% of striped bass anglers are against such an opening.  There has been zero analysis on how this will affect fishing mortality or spawning stock biomass.  That needs to take place before such a proposal can even be discussed.  The proper place for that is at the Commission.  Pushing it though like this is just bad policy.  And if such an area is opened, you can be damn sure other states, particularly Massachusetts and Virgina, will be pushing hard to open up federal waters off their states.


Now…  Let me editorialize for a minute.  This is a really freak’n bad bill.

Don’t you dare for a minute tell me it’s not that bad, and that I don’t understand what the bill does.  I spent 9 years on a Federal Management Council. I know full well what it would do.  And it would not be pretty.

And don’t accuse me of being some tree-hugger enviro-hack.  I make a living off of finding, torturing and killing fish.  The “Empty Oceans Act” would inevitably make that harder to do.

The hard truth is that support for the “Empty Oceans Act” was spawned by a handful of disgruntled red snapper anglers, because they couldn’t kill snapper in federal waters (note, that can kill plenty in state waters).

It’s hard not to think the rest of the angling community isn’t being sold down the river, because of one stupid species that overall very few people even target.

Don’t be fooled by folks who claim this is a “conservation” bill.  It is not.  It is, at it’s very basic level an attempt to subterfuge the science, get around reasonable science-based catch limits and kill more things, and to hell with everything and everyone else.  And that just sucks.

Those people, those organizations, those companies, should be ashamed of themselves.  They sold out, they sold us out, and they sold our kids out…  And for what?

Yes, the Magnuson Act is constraining to some people in some fisheries, but overall, it’s hard to argue it hasn’t made things better for the rest of us.  Some 44 stocks have been rebuilt.  It’s working.  Let’s not F it up.

The fate of our fisheries is now in the hands of the US senate.

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