More than 40 years ago, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which operates as the regulatory umbrella for federal fishery laws. House Republicans in 2018 — led by U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who was elected to Congress three years before the MSA came into being — passed an MSA reauthorization, but it died at the end of the term.

This year new MSA reauthorization bills are in the works, and mangers of the federal fishery off the Southeastern coast are paying attention to movements on Capitol Hill that could result in two very different bills emerging.

“The new Congress will be working on new bills to reauthorize the (Magnuson-Stevens Act), and we talked some about the Senate staff draft the last meeting — that’s still out there,” said Gregg Waugh, SAFMC executive director, at the council’s meeting Thursday on Jekyll Island. “The House is going to come up with a very different bill, and so, in talking with (SAFMC Chairwoman) Jessica (McCawley), we thought we’d still send in some comments on what’s in the Senate bill.

“We’re not going to go through it here today, but if you all have any suggestions that you want to address, if you get those to me by the end of next week — say close of business March 15 — then we’ll draft a letter and send that in. A number of the other councils have commented on what’s in that bill.”

There is a great deal that goes into the legislation covering a great deal of topics. Trying to literally get everyone on the same page, the different regional fishery management councils come together in the Council Coordinating Committee to state their consensus positions on various issues. Waugh said that as members of congress introduce MSA reauthorization bills and FMCs are asked to comment, they’ll use the coordinating committee’s working paper to do so.

For example, regarding fishery rebuilding, the CCC thinks increased flexibility regarding stock rebuilding would help FMCs reach their management objectives.

“We acknowledge that rebuilding often comes with necessary and unavoidable social and economic consequences, but we believe that targeted changes to the law would enable the development of rebuilding plans that more effectively address the biological imperative to rebuild overfished stocks while mitigating the social and economic impacts,” according to the January 2019 edition of the working paper.

There’s also been a fair amount of talk regarding the definitions of “overfished” and “depleted.” The CCC wants to move toward a different term “for describing fisheries that are depleted as a result of non-fishing factors, unknown reasons or a combination of fishing and other factors. The current (maximum sustainable yield)-based definition can be problematic when applied to data-limited fisheries or mixed-stock complexes.

“Furthermore, the term ‘overfished’ can unfairly implicate fishermen for depleted conditions resulting from pollution, coastal development, offshore activities, natural ecosystem fluctuations and other factors. Not all of the councils agree that ‘depleted’ is an appropriate term to replace ‘overfished’ with.”

Some of the councils stated “depleted” has meanings specified in other federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and using the term in this context could prove troublesome.

There is no MSA reauthorization filed presently, though as Waugh said, the House and the Senate are likely to have distinctly different policy priorities whenever that occurs.

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