Two U.S. congressmen are working on updating and reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary legislation governing fisheries management in federal waters extending 3 to 200 nautical miles off the coast.
At last week’s virtual ComFish, one of those congressmen, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), updated Alaskans on his efforts to draft a bill reauthorizing the act.
He spoke about the changing needs of America’s fisheries that are addressed in his draft bill, and his outreach efforts to make the bill’s development more inclusive and transparent.
Huffman, who is also the chair of the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee, has been working with U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Honolulu) on updating the act.
Huffman stressed the importance of reauthorizing the bill amid impacts to ocean environments caused by climate change, new available science and data, and challenges to managing the fisheries caused by the pandemic.
According to Huffman’s website, the last reauthorization occurred in 2006 and expired at the end of fiscal 2013. However, the act's requirements have remained in effect and Congress has continued to appropriate funds to administer the act.
During his talk, Huffman gave an overview of what will be updated in the legislation.
“I don’t think of this as a heavy-handed mandate or dramatic shift. Some councils are already doing this,” Huffman said. “One thing we’ve heard loud and clear: Climate change is affecting just about everyone, and it really does have to be embedded in the consideration of how we go about managing our fisheries.”
He said the bill would include language requiring climate change and climate science to be considered in regional fishery management council planning.
Shifting ocean currents and warming waters have been alarming issues for fishermen around the country, as warming waters have started changing the distribution of fish stocks.
The bill would also increase support for seafood marketing initiatives by directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to collaborate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The draft bill also addresses instances when having observers on a boat to conduct fisheries stock surveys becomes impractical, like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last summer, NOAA cancelled five of six large-scale research surveys in federal waters off Alaska. Without the surveys, researchers could not collect essential data to inform fisheries management about critical Alaska fishery stocks.
The bill would require NOAA to develop plans to continue with stock assessments when the traditional way of surveying becomes challenging.
“The pandemic has taught us that we are going to have to be more nimble in these situations,” Huffman said. “This work is too important to allow it to just come to a halt, even during tough times like a pandemic.”
Huffman noted that the draft strengthens central fish habitat consultation, improves outcomes from overfishing and rebuilding of stocks, and conserves forage fish, which are vitally important to the ocean ecosystem.
The draft bill also addresses complaints about the term “overfished.”
Huffman noted that many stakeholders noted that the term “overfished” is “disparaging” because sometimes fisheries decline for environmental reasons.
He said the term “depleted” encompasses a “much more complex set of threats” to fished stocks that are sometimes unrelated to fishing.
Even before the release of the draft bill in December, Huffman started a “Listening Tour” to get feedback on the legislation from experts and stakeholders throughout the nation.
During his online address, Huffman said one of his goals was to make the process transparent and inclusive, and to base the draft on “science and problem solving.” He said lack of transparency in previous years made it difficult to reauthorize the bill.
“It hasn't always been that way. I think that's one of the reasons that we stumble for a number of years for several consecutive congresses,” Huffman said. “Magnuson, which used to be a very bipartisan apolitical federal marine fisheries framework, got hijacked by the partisanship of our times.”
He said the draft incorporates several bipartisan bills, one of which includes the American Fisheries Advisory Committee Act sponsored by Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-AK).
Huffman said that if the bill is passed, legislators will need to fight for funding as the bill will require communities to make additional investments in order to implement the directions and requirements laid out in the bill.
“We create these authorizing bills, then our work is not done. We have to make sure that funds are appropriated,” he said. “We will need to fight for those dollars.”
Huffman is still looking for feedback on the draft. Information and the draft bill can be accessed online at huffman.house.gov.