Here We Go Again
PRESERVE THE PRINCIPLE, SPEND THE INTEREST.
The current administration and Congress’ philosophy of grabbing everything they can today and dealing with whatever happens as a result tomorrow spells trouble for fish populations.
If you are interested in the long-term health and sustainability of our marine resources and would like to make sure there are fish left to catch for your children and grandchildren, then you need to be concerned. If you are more interested in current access and catch for our marine fish, you might be smiling. I suspect that most readers are in the middle ground, concerned about the future of our fish but unaware of what the discussion about the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act really means. My hope is that I can help with that discussion.
Having spent 19 years on a state marine fisheries advisory commission and nine on a regional fishery management council, I understand the regulatory process and the intent of both state and federal laws meant to manage our marine resources. The United States is unique in how we manage our common-property marine resources. We do so in a transparent and open process all are welcome to participate in. Having said that, I am also the first to recognize that the process, like many governmental regulatory dealings, is very complicated to the casual observer. Arcane may be a better description. Everywhere else in the world, the process is far more dogmatic, with minimal or no public participation. Our democratic process can certainly work without public input, but simply stated, it works a whole lot better with it.
The federal law that regulates how many of our marine fish are managed, and is basically mimicked for some state fisheries, is the Magnuson Stevens Act (MSA). It is reauthorized, give or take, every seven years, and it gets a typically flowery governmentese name, but underneath it is still the MSA. Reauthorization is an opportunity to tinker with or outright change parts of the law that one dislikes and/or to finetune parts that need to work better. Since Congress is busy with healthcare, taxes, budgets or immigration, MSA may not get a lot of
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attention. The current Congress is in the process of reauthorization as this is written, but it is anyone’s guess if it will have been signed into law by the time this sees print. Yet the ongoing discussions are troubling to me. They are reflective of the current administration and Congress’ philosophy of grabbing everything they can today and dealing with whatever happens as a result tomorrow. Not a good situation, in my opinion, but I admit to being conservative with a small “c” and perhaps old-fashioned. Resource management is like a savings account. If you take out just the interest earned, the account remains stable. If you take the interest and nibble at the principle, soon the account is empty. The existing MSA has done a pretty good job of maintaining, or in some cases building, the principle. Where it has doled out too much of the interest and/or principle, there are triggers that require a process to rebuild the stock.
While this process is far from perfect, there are more species of fish that have had their biomass rebuilt in U.S. waters than in any other of the world’s territorial seas. There are still some to be rebuilt, but our record is pretty good.
The problem comes when a rebuilding program is established and, under the existing law, the time frame generally can be no longer than 10 years. This arbitrary number is not based on any natural time frame. It was set as a reasonable period long enough to allow the resource to rebuild and short enough to make sure the government did not just kick the can down the road, which it is expert at doing. The bill that will most likely be the basis for change is HR 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act. The desire is to make the rebuilding period more flexible, which should be read as “longer.” This means some fish populations will remain at below-optimum levels for a longer period, which may benefit some resource users in the short run, but will not benefit the resource. Anglers should realize that we use the least-efficient gear, and when fish populations are depressed, we are the most negatively impacted users. That automatically means fewer folks taking fishing trips.
Some see this as simply giving users more immediate access to fish by keeping quotas slightly higher. Going back to the savings-account example, this means the interest level has to be enhanced with some of the principle in hopes that the interest rate will soon rise.
My concern is and will remain, whether reauthorization has been passed or not, that the current administration is far more interested in consumption rather than conservation. That is not good for the fish bank account, and that should concern you as well.