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