January 23, 2008

Basnight weighs in on Jones’ fisheries legislation

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight has asked the state’s congressional delegation to support the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2007, legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) in November.

The Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act (HR 4087) would amend the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 to give federal fisheries managers flexibility in setting the deadline for rebuilding a fish stock to a healthy, sustainable level.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires fisheries management councils to rebuild depleted stocks in the shortest time possible, not exceeding 10 years in most cases.

“This schedule is not based on scientific data – in fact, some fish stocks could not rebuild in that time frame, even if (harvest) moratoriums were implemented,” Basnight wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to North Carolina’s federal representatives.

“The unintended consequence of this management strategy is severe social and economic impacts to our already struggling fishing communities,” he continued.

Basnight said managers should have the option of extending the 10-year deadline in situations where stocks are rebounding and moving towards biological goals identified by scientists.

Many federal and state fisheries officials agree that the 10-year timeframe leaves little room for minimizing the economic impact of fishing regulations, another responsibility of federal managers under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency overseeing marine resource management in federal waters, urged Congress to authorize flexible rebuilding deadlines during the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens in 2006.

“It’s no secret that the agency (NMFS) and the administration would like more flexibility in rebuilding,” said outgoing NMFS director Bill Hogarth during a teleconference with reporters in December.

Dan Furlong, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of the eight regional federal councils that works with NMFS to develop management plans, supported HR 4087 or similar legislation “to provide a more common sense approach” to management in a widely circulated e-mail last month. 

Furlong wrote that even though the summer flounder stock is in better shape than anytime during the past 25 years, management has been deemed a failure as a result of “an arbitrary yet statutory deadline.” 

He cautioned that the 10-year deadline is likely to result in closures of fisheries to commercial and recreational fishermen.

“Unless the law is changed, we will be…denying an abundant fish to those who seek it,” Furlong predicted.

Robert Mahood, executive director of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, said that council would probably discuss HR 4087 at its meeting in March.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to discuss it, but we’re in favor of flexibility in management.  I haven’t seen anything in the bill that I personally object to,” Mahood said.

North Carolina fisheries officials also urged Congress to support “the spirit” of HR 4087 last week. 

“We support more flexibility in the management process,” wrote Mac Currin, chairman of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, in a Jan. 8 letter to congressional delegates.

U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) signed on as a co-sponsor of HR 4087 in December.

Spokespersons said other congressmen are now reviewing the legislation.

HR 4087 has received endorsements from fishing groups as diverse as the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing trade organization, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance, two groups often at odds over fisheries issues.

Many environmental organizations, however, oppose the bill.

“I agree with the goals of having healthy fish stocks and healthy fishing communities, but this legislation won’t get us there,” said Dan Whittle, director of the Southeast Oceans Program at Environmental Defense, from his office in Raleigh.

He said long-term economic viability rests in rebuilding stocks as quickly as possible.

“Delaying rebuilding means more and more harvest cuts down the road,” Whittle explained. 

He also said the bill doesn’t offer the councils enough guidance.

“My concern is that the temptation to push back rebuilding will perpetuate management based on politics rather than on science, and that rebuilding would become elusive,” said Whittle.

HR 4087 has been referred to the Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.

The subcommittee heard the testimony from Jones and other legislators, as well as representatives of fishing and environmental organizations, at a hearing in December.

The chairmen of the eight regional fishery management councils have requested that the subcommittee hold a hearing for testimony from the councils.

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