Nine months after the U.S. House of Representatives passed its bill
to reauthorize and amend the Magnuson Stevens Act, we are waiting for action. Action from the
Senate to do something – anything – with a bill that would provide critical relief to our
nation's fishing communities.
And come the end of 2016, chances are we will still be waiting, because with it being an election year, passing legislation that has the potential to improve the lives of fishermen around the country is simply not a high priority.
The bill – H.R. 1335, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act – would help stanch the bleeding of an industry that is losing not only the small fishermen but the bigger ones, too.
It was passed in June 2015 by a bipartisan House vote and sent to the Senate. The Senate, however, has not acted on it. Nor has it acted on a Marco Rubio bill – S. 1403, the Florida Fisheries Improvement Act – that would make changes to Magnuson but is focused primarily on the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
With election season kicking into another gear and the congressional races beginning soon, Rubio's bill and the House bill will continue to gather dust.
It's unacceptable, because while the politicians fiddle, the bureaucrats in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continue policies that set fire to our fishing communities. Policies such as marine restricted areas and the continual grind toward catch-shares that are killing fishing economies around the country in the name of “making a better future for our fishermen.”
There's no better example of this than in the Gulf of Mexico, where the individual fishing quota system that regulates red snapper fishing has concentrated power in the hands of a few fishing conglomerates while turning fishermen who had been able to earn a decent living into, as the publication AL.com put it, “modern-day serfs who must pay the lords of the sea.”
AL.com reporter Ben Raines spent four months researching the red snapper IFQ. What he found was what groups that have been fighting catch-shares and IFQs have been warning about since the 1990s: The system has allowed a handful of fishermen to sit back and make millions – Raines' report estimated that roughly $60 million has been earned since 2007 by this small number of fishermen – while they kept their boats at port.
“That money was collected from the labor of fishermen who have no choice but to hand over more than half of the price that their catch brings at the dock,” he wrote, because they rent out their shares to the highest bidders.
Bob Shipp, who was the chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council at the time the IFQ system went into effect, says the program succeeded at reducing the size of the snapper fleet, which was one of its primary goals.
"But the system has also evolved in ways the council never anticipated, and created a wildly unfair situation," he told Raines. "This business of leasing shares, I don't think that's something that ever occurred to any of the council members or the (fishery service) people either. It just evolved."
That last quote – “I dont think that's something that ever occurred to any of the council members” – speaks volumes. It points to the fact that fisheries managers and especially the bureaucrats have continually tuned out the remarks from anyone who opposes programs they have set their mind to instituting. Organizations like the Recreational Fishing Alliance and fishing columnists such as John Geiser and Al Ristori in New Jersey, and Richard Gaines of the Gloucester Daily Times, repeatedly warned of the potential for well-moneyed organizations to buy up large portions of the catch-share pie and thereby control the entire fishery, from how it's fished to how it's managed.
Before you say, “Oh, it's just commercial fishing,” you need to remember that IFQs have been proposed for recreational anglers as well – and a modified version of this program exists as an “experimental” program in the Gulf, where a handful of charter boats have been allowed to fish for snapper outside of defined seasons – meaning a small few have all the power and gain in the recreational side of it, too.
Why don't the bureaucrats at the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA's fishing arm, listen? Because Congress will not hold them accountable for fulfilling their duties and responsibilities, instead allowing them to hide behind the shroud of “best available science.”
The Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act has the potential to bring some balance to fisheries management – balance that is critical given NOAA's continued foot-dragging on items mandated in the 2006 reauthorization.
Ten years after the reauthorization, and five years after the national saltwater fishing registry was introduced, NOAA still isn't utilizing that directory to improve its data gathering on recreational effort. Yet it continues to push fisheries management based on “best available science” that hasn't improved in any measurable way in 20 years.
Even more inexcusable, however, is the inaction of the Senate. The Republicans have no legitimate reason for sitting on it – and with control of the Senate, they could potentially override any veto by President Obama, which his staff has said is certain if H.R. 1335 is passed by the Senate as written.
Don't hold your breath on anything happening before November, however, because we are deep into stupid season – where every move is simply focused on the election and winning re-election.
Raines wrote: “This government distribution of a public commodity to private individuals who are then legally allowed to sell it for a profit is unprecedented in the modern age. The fish swimming in the nation's oceans are a publicly owned resource, just like the oil beneath the seafloor, the trees in our national forests, or the minerals buried beneath federally owned land. For all those resources, the federal government holds auctions and sells the right to harvest the publicly owned commodities to the highest bidder.”
"There are people making lots and lots of money from a gifted public resource,” Shipp told Raines. “We are talking millions each year. These people who are no longer fishing, no longer lifting a finger, just making money off their peers, that really needs to be corrected."
He's right. It needs to be. But with election-year inertia, chances of it happening are less than the chances of catching a 2,000-pound swordfish.
We need to demand better – from everyone
Karen Wall Subscribe