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Congress to Tests Winds on Fishery Changes

Marin rep casts proposal for a sustainability-centric revamp

A fishing boat sits moored in Monterey Bay, where fish populations have rebounded, as they have in other U.S. coastal waters.

Half Moon Bay’s Bob Dooley has been fishing since he was 11, and as a boat owner, he’s traveled many times to the waters off Alaska searching for pollock and other whitefish.

Now 65 and retired, Dooley serves on the Pacific Fishery Management Council, weighing in on regulatory policy. He realizes the term “fishery management” inspires suspicion among fishermen, especially those from the generation prior, but Dooley credits federal regulations with keeping the nation’s fisheries sustainable and letting populations rebound—ultimately giving fishermen like himself a shot at a career.

The backbone of this framework is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which passed in 1976. Among its provisions was an outline for a system to create fish allotments for individual fisheries. Congress has reauthorized the act a few times over the years, most recently in 2006. In the years since, efforts to revisit the law have stalled out before netting any results. Now, Congressmember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) is starting a “listening tour” to get perspectives on how to improve Magnuson–Stevens. Huffman plans to introduce a bill to tackle the reauthorization within the next year.

Looking ahead, Dooley says Congress may take this important opportunity to clarify wording that often gets misinterpreted. By and large, though, he’s hoping that legislators hold interest groups at bay.

“The problem is when you open the door, a lot of special interests can climb through. It’s a good act, and I don’t think we need to fool with it much,” he says.

As the recently appointed chair of Congress’ Democrat-controlled Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee, Huffman says his goal is to help manage oceans and fisheries “to be as environmentally and economically resilient as possible.” He’s asking how issues like global climate change should be considered in a revised version of the act.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, is looking forward to the listening tour. Oppenheim has his doubts about how Congress can make any legislative progress on global warming under a White House that denies the existence of climate change. Nonetheless, he believes the opportunity will prompt fishermen to start thinking more globally and get involved outside of the individual policies undertaken by local fishery councils.

Representative Huffman, for his part, enjoys support from an environmental community that’s aligned with his values. Huffman riding herd over the process, Oppenheim says, “will be an interesting dynamic to watch.”

“He needs to understand that fisheries management is about the industry first,” Oppenheim adds, and that the Magnuson-Stevens Act wasn’t intended to shut down the industry, but to figure out how to make it work in a manner that’s sustainable for the fish and fishermen alike.

Oppenheim knows full well that fishing has an impact on fish stocks. “But we’ve brought back many stocks from the brink,” he says. He adds that California fishermen have, if grudgingly, “throttled back their activities to protect them.” Overfishing is one issue, but it’s “climate impacts and industrial activities outside of fishing,” he says, “that are the biggest impact” on fish stocks.

Oppenheim says that lawmakers should take a hard look at any offshore industry development as they study reauthorization. He says external threats to fishermen’s livelihoods—offshore oil and gas rigs or wind farms—should be a part of the discussion. Concerned about the impacts of a proposed wind farm south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Oppenheim notes that current law doesn’t allow for any regulation of industries that might have a deleterious impact on fishermen’s livelihoods. The Bureau of Energy Management oversees the leasing for such projects.

With Huffman still testing the waters on this topic, it’s unclear which direction policy discussions might take.

In Santa Cruz, Tobias Aguirre, CEO of sustainable seafood advocacy group FishWise, believes Congress should strengthen the act’s environmental protections to let fisheries keep rebounding. “We need to keep our foot on the gas,” says Aguirre. With its focus geared toward international issues, FishWise has been collaborating on the international Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability, which aims to improve transparency in global seafood markets. FishWise’s next mission, he says, will be improving the working conditions of fishermen.

The livelihood of fishermen is certainly a chief concern for Oppenheim. A fisherman himself, he’s the first to admit that they have occasionally been part of an “anti-science” agenda when it has helped business interests, but he says the industry provides valuable data to scientists and regulators. “Fishermen can both be far better observers of ocean conditions and the real-time status of fisheries,” he says, “and simultaneously be in denial over the impacts that broad-scale fishing can have over time.”

But it’s also true that the scientists can make mistakes, and they’ve missed the mark when it comes to fish stocks, he says, with poor survey data. The bottom line for Oppenheim when it comes to fisheries management is that, “We’re doing better than we ever have in the past”—though he admits there’s much to be done. He believes the “ship can be righted to some extent by bringing in the fishermen,” especially small-scale operators. “One of the more interesting things to note about fish politics is to notice how ‘flipped’ it is,” he says. “The quote-unquote ‘liberal’ politics of egalitarianism and support for communities” has not been the traditional Democratic Party approach, he argues. 

At the same time, conservative lawmakers pegged as being too pro-business at the expense of the environment, he says, have led the charge to focus on localities and small-time operators. 

“Fundamentally, liberals should be about supporting communities,” he says. “Partisanship in fisheries is terrible, counterproductive, and we’ve been seeing too much of it lately.” 

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