Fish got 99 problems and they all Congress: How a single representative is trying to take the science out of fishery management

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Every now and then we hear about a representative in Congress who claims, “global warming is a hoax,” or “climate change isn’t based on real science.” These statements are shocking and disturbing to hear from elected representatives charged with making decisions for our country. However, a more subtle condemnation of science has been happening in Congress, and it directly affects the survival of the fish in our oceans and the people that make their living by fishing.

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Oceans being hurt on Capitol Hill? (Jill Goatcher)

Fishery management strives to hit the sweet spot between maintaining the national fishing industry while ensuring that fish populations are not depleted to the point of extinction. The Magnuson-Stevens Act was established in 1976 by Congress to combine science with management to work effective fishery management in the United States. The law protects populations from fishing faster than fish are able to reproduce (called “overfishing” ), and calls for the United States fishing industry to adopt sustainable fishing practices, which netted an average of $4 billion worth of fish between 2008 and 2010. Drafts of the reauthorized bill include measures that would restrict transparency in management decisions, increase the waiting period for fish-saving policies to be implemented and reduce the amount of critical oversight currently in place over fishery management councils.

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Trawl net on deck of a commercial fishing ship. (CC)

Overfishing is a massive national and global problem. As technology has adapted from line and net fishing, the capacity for one boat to bring fish ashore has exponentially increased. Fishing technology, called “bottom trawling,” collected over 800 million pounds of fish off the coasts of the U.S. in 2007 alone. A net (which can be as wide as six 747 planes lined up wing tip-to-tip) is typically dragged along the bottom of the ocean floor, indiscriminately scraping and corralling marine animals into the net. The net also destroys the seabed, including corals and sea grasses that are critical to supporting life in that environment. The net is then winched up onto the deck where animals that cannot be sold to a market are thrown overboard, often already dead or near death. These animals are called “bycatch” and are killed purely as a result of this unsustainable fishing practices.

Bottom trawling destroying critical marine habitats. (Greenpeace UK)

The Magnuson-Stevens Act has cut down unsustainable fishing practices and stock depletion and has allowed the U.S. to maintain one of the strongest fishery management plans in the country – overfished populations have fallen to 26 populations in September 2013 from 72 populations in 2000, and a whopping 34 different types of fish have been rebuilt to sustainable levels since 2000.

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Cod, a sensitive fishery in the northeast United States, in a trawl net on deck. (CC)

This act is up for reauthorization this year, and a single representative is trying to reverse the strengthening of fishery management practices. Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Rep. Doc Hastings of central Washington State has proposed changes to the act that have led conservation groups to call it, “The Empty Oceans Act.”

Among many changes that blatantly ignore fishery science, the draft would mandate a five-year waiting period – compared to the two-year waiting period currently – before policies could be implemented to restore a struggling fish population. This means that for an additional three years, fishing practices do not have to be changed for a fish that could be on the brink of depletion. This would only further damage the fish stock, leading to more severe economic and environmental consequences when restoration policies are finally put into place.

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Red snapper, a sensitive fish population in the Gulf of Mexico, caught off the coast of Florida. (CC)

Hasting’s draft of the act would also do away the transparency with which fishery management councils have historically operated. By restricting public access to fishery data that is used to make management decisions about fish resources, key stakeholders, including fishermen and scientists, would be unable to see the statistical reality of fish stocks in oceans nationwide. This could open the door to poor management decisions that, without public oversight, could be based on political, rather than environmental, motivations.

Additionally, how the Magnuson-Stevens Act is reviewed by larger environmental legislation, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, could be completely altered. The National Environmental Policy Act requires impartial, ecosystem-based review of “federal management actions,” including the exploration of alternatives to proposed actions to minimize potential damaging impacts of federal management proposals such as fishery stock management. Hastings has proposed that the Magnusen-Stevens Act does not need this sort of oversight, leaving fishery managers lacking broad ecosystem information that could lead to the most effective decisions to improve the health of fish populations.

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A school of fish in the Gulf of Mexico. (CC)

The proposals made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act by Chairman Hastings are environmentally irresponsible. The draft must be altered to allow the act to move forward with strength, not scale back on science-based management and prolonged waiting periods. As critically informed citizens, we can not accept this shift in Congress toward destroying our fisheries.

Jill Goatcher is a senior politics major and marine biology minor. She can be reached at goatcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJGoatcher.