NOAA Releases New Fisheries Bill

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) National Marine Fisheries Service yesterday described its bill to reauthorize the expired 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for 2006 through 2010. The bill proposes a new management approach that considers the health of an entire ecosystem rather than an individual species, but stops short of mandating an immediate end to overfishing.

The original Magnuson-Stevens Act was intended to guard against foreign overfishing in U.S. waters and focused more on preserving jobs than the environment. However, the past 30 years have seen increasing concerns about domestic overfishing, as well as habitat degradation and ocean pollution. In response, the independent Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, both established in 2000, issued separate 2004 reports that urged similar steps to restore ocean health.

The new reauthorization bill incorporates many of these recommendations, including nudging agencies toward an ecosystem-based view of management, encouraging scientists to participate in management decisions by offering stipends, and establishing a peer-review process for fisheries science. The new bill also proposes a national saltwater recreational fishing license, as a way to get complete data on the seasonal catch. Another big change is the addition of national guidelines to create a Dedicated Access Privilege (DAP) program for fishermen, giving them shares in the annual catch and thus financial interest in the well-being of the stocks.

However, the bill stops short of the more controversial proposals of the Pew and U.S. ocean policy commissions, including immediately reducing fishing quotas to sustainable levels. Instead, the Act gives fishermen a 2-year deadline before eliminating overfishing once that level has been set by an advisory committee.

The new bill is "more definitive than the current law," says William Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Center. "We've got a document on the table that will spur discussion."

Leon Panetta, former White House Chief of Staff under President Clinton and the chair of the 2004 Pew Oceans Commission, says that he is cautiously optimistic about the bill. "We have an opportunity with (the bill) to bring science into the issue; instead of management by crisis, we can develop a sustainable approach," he says. The challenge now, he adds, will be to get it through Congress, as some members may see the 2-year deadline as still too restrictive.

Related site
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service