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One Man's Opinion - Magnuson Act is getting ground into fish sausage

Considering that the very powerful sportfishing lobby
    has yet to fully join the fray, one wonders how any meaningful
    bill can ever be passed.
By Peter Redmayne
October 01, 2006

There's an old saying that there are two things you never want to watch being made: legislation and sausages. Well, the five-year effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fish­eries Act is looking like a fish sausage.

Originally passed some 30 years ago, the Magnuson Act is the basis for managing fisheries resources in the zone between 3 and 200 miles offshore. The main impetus for its passage was to stop foreign factory trawlers from plundering U.S. fish stocks. In that regard, the bill has been a great success. Today, virtually no foreign boats operate off the United States.

However, after the U.S. fleet eventually geared up, it took up where the foreign fleets had left off in some fisheries, especially in the Northeast. By the mid-1990s, catches of bedrock species like Atlantic cod had plummeted from more than 40,000 metric tons to about 10,000 metric tons. The collapse of these stocks gave environmental groups a cause celebre, and, with lawyers in tow, they started attending fishery-management-council meetings and filing lawsuits. Fisheries management has never been the same.

The latest attempt to reauthorize the Magnuson Act has been held up until the end of this year at the earliest, as furious lobbying by a growing array of special-interest groups has stalled legislation at the House level. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bill that was generally acceptable to the environmental lobby. Ted Stevens, the powerful and feisty senator from Alaska whose name is on the bill, signed off on the language that directed the councils to rebuild stocks by whatever means necessary within 10 years. Since Alaska fish stocks are generally in excellent shape, Stevens was okay with the environmental lobby's demands.

In return for Stevens' support, the environmentalists went along with language in the Senate bill that the Alaska Marine Conservation Council calls a "paradigm shift from 'open access' fisheries to systems that allocate public fishery resources to private individuals." This is an ongoing theme in the "rationalization" of Alaska's fisheries, which has concentrated both harvesting and processing among a small, select group of exceedingly wealthy stakeholders.

In the Alaska crab fishery, the fleet has been reduced by two-thirds, much to the dismay of Alaska fishermen and crewmembers who didn't make the cut. The lucky few who did, though, now have plenty of money to hire lobbyists to make sure friends like Sen. Stevens look out for their interests.

The most recent delay in the reauthorization came this September when the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who is not exactly known as a defender of the environment, introduced an amendment to soften the language on rebuilding stocks. In the Baltimore Sun, one environmental attorney wrote that unless Pombo's version of the bill "is drastically strengthened to meet the Senate version, the foxes will continue to guard the henhouse, and our ocean stocks will continue to decline."

With the environmental groups now poised to do their best to prevent the House bill from passing, Pombo decided to delay a floor vote, further lengthening an increasingly laborious, fractious effort to get the Magnuson Act reauthorized. Considering that the very powerful sportfishing lobby has yet to fully join the fray, one wonders how any meaningful bill can be ever passed. The more lobbyists and legislators grind away on this bill, the more it looks like fish sausage.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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