There seems to be a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill of late — and we don't mean flurry of the snow kind.
As the days tick down on the 113th Congress, bills of all kinds are being pushed through, supporting this program or that stance that has not been addressed previously. It can be a very dangerous time of year for fishermen — that much was proven in 2006, when the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act was passed in the waning hours of the 109th Congress.
That reauthorization, which had been the subject of much wrangling, was pushed through on Dec. 19, 2006, even as debate about its provisions raged in the community, and signed into law on Jan. 12, 2007 by then-President George W. Bush. The bill had originally been passed by committees earlier in 2006 but had languished in inaction for months, like so much other legislation in the 109th Congress, which many had labeled a "Do Nothing" Congress.
The result was a bill pushed through just to give Congressional leaders the chance to say they'd accomplished something.
Fast-forward to today. That 2006 reauthorization of Magunson — which included federal budget appropriations expired in 2013. Now, more than a year later, it continues to languish — just as the 2006 bill did.
In mid-December, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska introduced a Senate version of a bill to reauthorize Magnuson for another six years. A House version of the bill, HR 3063, the Healthy Fisheries through Better Science Act, has been gathering dust since it was introduced in August by Rep. Robert Wittman (R-Va.).
Begich's website insists the bill, S-2991, is intended only to put the text of draft work done in the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard "on the record for future consideration."
But there are concerns the bill could open the door for a reauthorization that includes sneaky, last-minute changes that undermine the House bill. The House bill is seen by many in the fishing community as a step toward rebuilding communities and an industry that has been devastated in recent years, suffering whammy after whammy, from bad weather, like Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Sandy; to a bad economy, thanks to the economic crash of 2007-08; to devastating events like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and, of course, the devastation of fisheries shutdowns due to inflexibility in the fisheries management process.
Up and down the coasts, fishing communities have struggled to survive; many people have thrown up their hands and walked away from a lifetime on the water, because the devastation was so complete.
In April, Begich circulated the draft version produced by the subcommittee. According to the Alaska Journal of Commerce, that draft adds subsistence to the types of fishing being managed alongside commercial and recreational, adds subsistence to the fishery categories eligible for representation on regional fishery management councils, and refers to Tribal governments’ role in managing fish.
Subsistence fishing has long been forgotten in fisheries discussions, or lumped in with recreational fishing.
According to the Journal, the language also calls for an expansion of the Community Development Quota program if the North Pacific council amends the Arctic fishery management plan, or FMP, to allow commercial fishing there. The draft does not provide many specifics on the CDQ program changes, but does say 10 percent of the total allowable catch in the Arctic Management Area would be set aside for coastal villages north and east of the Bering Strait. The Community Development Quota, or CDQ, program, was implemented in 1992 and allocates 10.7 percent of the Bering Sea federal fisheries harvest to six organizations representing 65 Western Alaska villages within 50 miles of the coast.
Currently, there is no fishing allowed under the Arctic FMP.
Begich's website, http://www.begich.senate.gov/public/ also says the version being introduced is much the same as that draft version with very few changes.
But we haven't seen the draft yet — and that means we have no way of knowing how far it really goes.
Given the fact that Begich is a lame-duck senator — he lost to Republican Dan Sullivan in the November election — and the fact that the Senate will no longer be controlled by the Democrats after Jan. 3, it's not far-fetched to believe this is an effort to move through a bill that will be favored by (or in some way tainted by, take your pick) overzealous environmental businesses, who view any attempt to add flexibility to Magnuson as a direct threat to their power and as such are continually working behind the scenes to put things such as individual fishing quotas and draconian cutbacks into the law.
That is exactly what happened in 2006, as last-minute changes to language were snuck in and our representatives on both sides of the aisle were too busy dealing with loads of legislation to really read what they were approving.
Republicans, however, have to guard against the belief that the environmental business groups — like the Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group — have infested only the Democratic side of the aisle. That 109th Congress was controlled in both the House and Senate by the GOP, and it was a Republican member of the House — H. James Saxton of New Jersey's 3rd District — who had supported some of the most stringent language in the last Magnuson reauthorization: an amendment that would have set a two-year deadline to end overfishing on a species, within two years of the trend being detected, and before the stock is actually overfished. That amendment was co-sponsored by another Republican, Wayne Gilchrist of Maryland.
John Geiser, the longtime fisheries columnist for the Asbury Park Press, pointed out at the time that the amendment would have brought the fishing industry to its knees. At that time in the Mid-Atlantic, the fishing community was fighting to stave off a massive cut in the summer flounder quota that had been proposed because it appeared the stock was not rebuilding quickly enough to meet a 2010 deadline. The quota cut would have devastated businesses up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast.
It was only under intense lobbying from constituents that Saxton and others then lobbied for a last-minute amendment that extended the deadline on rebuilding the summer flounder stocks — much to the chagrin of the staffer in his office who was driving his environmental policies at the time.
While Saxton's summer flounder fix addressed the immediate crisis, it didn't address the damage done by the reauthorized Magnuson Act — and work has continued since then to address it.
The current bill sitting in the House of Representatives is a good start. Rushing through a finalized Magnuson reauthorization could jeopardize that progress. We can only hope that Congress decides to let it rest until the New Year. No need to force it through just because time is ticking on this Congress.
Then we just have to be on guard against attempts to change it for the worse by "well-meaning" Republicans.
Karen Wall Subscribe