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Swimming with the fishes.

They say politics makes for strange bedfellows.

To my mind, there’s no stranger pairing than recreational fishing lobbyists working to the same ends as the menhaden extraction industry. Both groups are working to rewrite America’s fisheries management laws, and their legislative interests are aligned, if not overlapping.

As of today, a reauthorized version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act has passed markup in the House and is ready to be sent to Congress for a vote. This new ‘Modern Fish Act’ is officially H.R. 200, or the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”. As it stands today, H.R. 200 is a highly partisan revision of the 40+-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Act. The new bill waters-down MSA’s legal mandates that require sustainable management based on the ‘best available science’.

Recreational interests from states on the Gulf of Mexico are heavily engaged in the reauthorization process, to the point of authoring 'suggestions' on regulatory language. Their overall goal is increased flexibility (see bill name, above), with the aim to use alternative ways to increase angler access (aka: take more fish). Their goal is to broaden ways to assess a fishery's health, introduce socio-economic factors as a consideration in the science-based assessments process, and move management of key species away from Federal oversight and into local State-run control. They characterize the effort as a ‘return to States rights’.

Apparently, the industrial menhaden extraction companies are more than happy to follow the recreational groups approach - it serves their interests well. Whether they’re actively coordinating with the recreational lobbyists is as yet undetermined - though it’s hardly a coincidence that H.R.200 is co-sponsored by Rep. Robert Wittman (R-VA), whose Congressional District includes the only operating menhaden factory on the East Coast.

Virginia (light red on map) actively encourages the menhaden fishery in their state waters. Logic would indicate this leads to localized depletion.

As it happens, the Virginia legislature already manages menhaden directly, and they are presently considering a bill to implement new menhaden allocations determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last November. This week, a group of Virginia labor organizations and fisheries lobbyists sent a letter to their State legislature, calling for a rejection of new ASMFC regulations that had changed Virginia menhaden allocations. The letter specifically requests, “…the legislature not enact HB 822 that would accept this re-allocation.”

In essence, the letter is asking (directing...?) the Virginia legislature to ignore the ASMFC regulations and ‘go out of compliance’ with the changes. If the past is any guide, the legislature is likely to do so. Curiously, Virginia had appealed to ASMFC for redress on these same regulations, but withdrew their appeal. Why? I'd expect an appeal might complicate more favorable actions pending in Richmond and Washington, or they’ve chosen to keep their powder dry and wait for new opportunities once H.R. 200 becomes law.

Non-compliance with ASMFC regulations was once unheard of, as was appealing a finalized ASMFC ruling directly to the Secretary of Commerce. However, this administration has proved receptive to complaints. And judging by the recent successes of appeals made to Commerce by New Jersey and the Gulf States, compliance statutes appear to have little standing. In fact, some believe laws may have been broken in at least one of these appeals.

So where’s the connection between the letter to the VA legislature and H.R. 200, and why should the menhaden industry care? As it happens this ‘modernized’ MSA includes specific requirements to consider economic hardship when implementing catch limits. Here’s pertinent language:

“– In establishing annual catch limits a Council may, …consider changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of the fishing communities.

Coincidentally, at this week’s ASMFC Winter meeting, a board member from Virginia made a short speech about lean times and economic hardships. He spoke about how the Addendum IV Striped Bass regulations had decimated Virginia fishing businesses, and they had received little cooperation from other states in recent years. This is almost identical to the approach used by recreational interests from New Jersey and the Gulf States in their appeals to the Commerce Department - indeed the industry letter to the VA legislature cited New Jersey as precedence for their request.

The new law also requires NOAA Fisheries to

“…to the extent practicable, use State, university, and private assets to conduct fisheries surveys.”

This clears the path for an aggrieved party to commission paid studies as counterpoint to NOAA science. In essence, the new language requires fisheries managers to ‘consider’ socio-economics as well as data from private entities as they develop catch limits and management plans. And by ‘consider’ they mean ‘make sure you use this loophole so big you could drive a boat through it’.

Now, don’t get me wrong on the subject of economics – I am unquestionably in favor supporting the economic needs of fishing communities. The vast majority of commercial fishermen around the USA are small businesses, as are the charter boats and recreational businesses that all depend on sustainable fisheries for their livelihood. Fisheries generate over $200billion in combined economic activity across the USA. America can do much, much more to support our fisheries economy - more timely science, more accountability for recreational anglers, and more enforcement of the laws we already have.

Sadly, if the Modern Fish Act becomes law, I expect these interests will use the loopholes and work-arounds to their benefit, at the expense of our coastal fisheries. Gulf area anglers will probably catch a few more snapper for a couple years until stocks decline again, and localized depletion of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay will continue, if not increase substantially.

Whether these two special interests are in cahoots or not, once new laws are in place you can be sure they'll turn on each other at the first opportunity. Where Regional Councils could usually navigate the science and find compromise to develop and enforce long-term solutions, the weak authorities and loopholes built into the framework of this new bill will render management largely irrelevant. Because without hard limits and statutory requirements to manage for sustainability, competing interests will find little reason compromise.

The death of compromise, and the loser swims with the fishes.

So if you’re a recreational angler and you’re thinking ‘flexibility’ written into the ‘Modern Fish Act’ will improve your access to fishing, think again. H.R. 200 is a paean to the laws of unintended consequences. In the event this bill as written becomes law, fish stocks - recreational or commercial, they're all the same fish - are sure to decline along with regulatory effectiveness. And all the while the extraction industry will gladly take more and more menhaden to the bank.

Call or write your Senator and Representative and urge them to “vote no on H.R.200”. Ask them to call for bi-partisan, fact-based reauthorization of MSA that increases science budgets, implements reporting across all sectors, and strengthens legal mandates to require sustainable, science-based ecosystem management for the benefit of us all.

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