Ocean Currents

The Fight Against Empty Oceans

US Capitol
© Thomas Hawk

Healthy fish populations shouldn’t be a partisan issue—more fish in the water means more fish that can be caught. Fishermen, fishing businesses and conservationists share a similar goal, and lawmakers from both parties have historically worked together to solve the challenges of overfishing and create a law that keeps commercial and recreational fishermen out on the water. But it appears the tides have changed.

This week, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a markup on H.R. 3588 and H.R. 200, two pieces of partisan legislation that would seriously undermine the success we’ve had at managing fisheries in the United States.

On a strictly party line vote, the committee passed H.R.200, the House’s third attempt at a partisan bill to reauthorize and change our nation’s benchmark fishery law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). H.R. 200 would undermine the science-based conservation tools in the MSA that are crucial to preventing overfishing, restoring still-depleted fish populations, and stabilizing coastal communities harmed by decades of overfishing. These tools help ensure the law has the strength needed to make sure we’re planning for the long-term health of our fish and fisheries, and removing them puts us at great risk of returning to the days of wide-spread overfishing and depleted stocks.

The Committee also passed H.R. 3588, also known as the RED SNAPPER Act, which would exempt Gulf of Mexico red snapper from the parts of the law that have helped this depleted stock start rebuilding.  If it was to become law, it would be the second blow this year to the fishery. Back in June, Department of Commerce extended the 2017 private recreational fishing season beyond sustainable levels—the data we have so far shows all this extra time on the water resulted in landing at least 1.5 times their catch limit. And it’s not accident—memos from Commerce lay out that they knew exactly what they were doing and the harm it would cause to the fishery. Administration officials spoke candidly about violating the MSA to intentionally manufacture a crisis as a way to push Congress to legislatively unwind conservation requirements for 2018.

H.R. 3588 would be the next step towards unraveling the progress made in this fishery, as it would continue to let private anglers fish under different, weaker rules with less accountability than commercial and for-hire fishermen. It’s a terrible precedent to set and steers us far away from the core principle that has formed the backbone of our management to date—we’re all in this together.  Overfishing from one sector hurts everyone who relies on the abundance of this fishery.

Both H.R. 200 and H.R. 3588 now await a vote by the full House of Representatives before being sent over to the Senate for their consideration. Fortunately, the Senate has shown a readiness to listen and compromise. They’ve held several hearings to consider the experiences of a wide array of stakeholders, including commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, and fishery scientists. They now have an opportunity to work in a bipartisan fashion to tackle the real—not manufactured—challenges facing our fisheries.

If partisanship continues to dominate the conversation around fisheries, we know exactly how this story will end. It undoes the incredible progress we’ve made in responsible fisheries management and puts us back right where we started with depleted fish stocks and struggling fishing communities. That’s not fair to the fishermen who depend on abundant fisheries for their livelihood, the recreational anglers who are in it for the excitement of the catch, or the countless people throughout the country who enjoy eating seafood. It’s time for Congress start working together again and chart the course for real improvements to fisheries management. Our fishing communities depend on it.

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