Share story

WASHINGTON — The nation’s chief fisheries law was enacted in 1976 in a climate of alarm: the oceans were losing fish faster than they could reproduce, and most of the diminishing harvests were being scooped up by an armada of Soviet and Japanese factory trawlers.

In response, Congress passed the legislation now commonly called the
Magnuson-Stevens Act. It asserted exclusive American fishing rights out to 200 miles from shore. It also entrusted the federal government to protect Alaska pollock, Atlantic haddock and hundreds of other stocks from overfishing and to guard the water’s bounty for perpetuity.

Today, the fight to ensure sustainable fisheries has turned entirely domestic.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act expired last September. Republicans in the House Natural Resources Committee and Democrats in the Senate Commerce Committee have released separate bills to update the 2006 reauthorization.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The dueling drafts have split fishing factions by coastlines. Bering Sea crabbers and West Coast commercial groundfish harvesters, for instance, want the law’s conservation measures left largely intact.

But some of their counterparts in New England and the Gulf of Mexico are demanding key changes. The collapse or overexploitation of such iconic stocks as cod and red snapper have battered their livelihoods and curtailed sport fishing, and the fishermen want more elastic mandates on overfishing and on rebuilding depleted fish populations.

Meanwhile, recreational anglers, a sizable economic force, are pressing harder than ever to amend the law to secure longer, predictable fishing seasons and permission to hook bigger trophy fish.

The schism has hardened despite — or because of — the fact that U.S. fisheries on the whole are rebounding from catastrophic overfishing that pushed some species to possible extinction.

In 2006, “overfishing was so endemic everyone realized we needed to take measurable steps,” said George Geiger, former chairman the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils responsible for overseeing the law.

“There is much more acrimony associated with this reauthorization.”

High stakes

The heightened tension reflects high stakes. Commercial fishermen hauled in $5.1 billion worth of fin fish and shellfish in 2012, the latest economic data available. That in turn generated another $34 billion in income for processors, wholesalers and all who touch the seafood on its journey to the table.

In Washington, the seafood industry supports 61,000 jobs, fourth-highest behind California, Massachusetts and Florida, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Seattle is home to major seafood processors and most of the Alaska crabbing fleet.

But some of the fisheries that underpin that wealth are in precarious health. In Massachusetts, for instance, local cod has become so scarce that restaurants in its namesake town of Cape Cod are serving imports from Iceland. In 2012, the federal government formally declared disaster for the entire Northeastern commercial groundfish fishery.

In the southern Atlantic Coast, the red snapper population has plunged so low as to stir fears the fish may no longer support commercial trawling. As for recreational anglers, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council earlier this year set the 2014 federal red snapper season, which begins June 1, at 40 days. Then last month, it reduced that to 11 days, the shortest season ever. That move followed a federal judge’s March ruling that the fishery council violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by allowing charter-boat operators and anglers to consistently break their catch quotas.

The Gulf of Mexico fishery council is expected to announce this week the federal season will be trimmed even further.

Unchecked overfishing is less of an issue off the Washington, Alaska, Oregon and California coasts. Still, in the past decade the region has coped with the near-shutdown of salmon fisheries after water was diverted for irrigation from Oregon’s Klamath Basin, warming the river and killing thousands of fish. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary, reduced water flows decimated juvenile salmon populations and closed the fishery from 2008 to 2009.

Last year, NOAA declared the Pacific bluefin tuna as overfished, meaning its numbers have dropped below levels needed to sustain maximum catch.

Nonetheless, fishermen and fisheries managers in the North Pacific and Pacific Coast say following science-guided practices — and lawsuits against federal water-management decisions — helped them nurse back depleted stocks. Since 2011, seven fisheries in the North Pacific and Pacific Coast have been pronounced rebuilt, including chinook salmon, coho salmon and the southern Tanner crab.

Mark Gleason, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, contends that changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act floated by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, could squander gains made after 2006 amendments.

That year, Congress for the first time mandated firm annual catch limits for vulnerable fish stocks. It also required fisheries managers to end overfishing immediately.

‘Bad old days’

The law is named for its original architect, Sen. Warren Magnuson, the Washington Democrat who at the time was one of the most powerful members of Congress, and a later champion, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Hastings, however, says the law has become “unbalanced” at the expense of those who depend on fishing for a living or for fun. He has proposed, for example, to allow fisheries councils flexibility on rebuilding overfished stocks. Critics say it would do away with the strict 10-year rebuilding timeline required under the current law.

His bill also would give regional councils more discretion on how to set annual catch levels. Opponent say that effectively would make sardines, herring, anchovies and hundreds of other prey fish exempt from strict quotas.

Hastings called the criticisms “a misrepresentation of what the act does.”

“It changes nothing about rebuilding stocks” or catch limits, he said. Instead, “it gives the individual councils more flexibility to address their particular problems.”

Gleason said Hastings’ changes are unneeded and would eventually undermine the health of fisheries.

The current law “is not perfect, but it’s largely working,” said Gleason, whose Ballard-based group represents the crabbers on TV’s “Deadliest Catch” and other Bering Sea fishermen.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations in San Francisco, agreed.

“Flexibility means going back to the bad old days,” he said.

Grader contends fishermen in the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are paying the price for years of flouting catch quotas, ignoring science and putting short-term economic gains before long-term sustainability.

But representatives from the Gulf Seafood Institute, the Recreational Fishing Alliance and other groups have testified in Congress that the law can be loosened to better tap the ocean’s fisheries.

The allotted harvest of Atlantic mackerel, for example, has been slashed by more than half since 2007. That’s despite evidence suggesting their diminished numbers may stem less from American overfishing than from the fish migrating internationally into Canadian gillnets.

Changing ecosystems

The West Coast fishing groups have different concerns about the Senate draft
circulating among lobbyists and other interested parties.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, Seattle-based United Catcher Boats and six other organizations object to a host of provisions in the bill, written by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who chairs the Commerce subcommittee overseeing fisheries, and by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the panel’s ranking Republican.

The groups oppose, among other things, language aimed at reducing incidental “bycatches.” They also claim the bill reflects a crusade by Oceana, an environmental advocacy group, to curtail fishing for Alaska pollock — one of the Bering Sea’s most lucrative catches — by imposing new conservation and management standards on forage fish.

But some Democratic lawmakers say the Magnuson-Stevens Act must be strengthened to protect fish that are threatened by changing climate and ecosystems. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, a member of the fisheries subcommittee, is seeking to amend the act to require research into which fisheries might be most at risk from ocean acidification and increased assessments of the health of the stocks.

Since 2011, Congress has held a dozen hearings on how to rewrite the law. A second Senate draft is expected soon, and new hearings could resume as early as the end of this month.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or Twitter: @KyungMSong

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.