This week, members of Congress hope to avert a federal shutdown before going on a holiday break. After meeting with key members of the House of Representatives, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) says one thing that shouldn’t be expected before 2011 ends is congressional reform of the Magnuson Stevens Act.

RFA said that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

While the end of 2011 marks an important deadline for full implementation of annual catch limits (ACLs) and the associated recreational paybacks which may result, RFA said the most draconian restrictions have already been put in place by regional management councils since the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson.

Since early in 2007, RFA has spearheaded legislative reform efforts in Congress to incorporate much needed management flexibility into the federal fisheries law in hopes of keeping anglers on the water through a better balance of commerce and conservation. One particular bill of importance has been the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act, which by 2009 had the support of hundreds of fishing and boating organizations including the National Association of Charterboat Operators, Marine Retailers Association of America, and even the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).

Calls for Magnuson reform culminated in a national protest near the steps of the U.S. Capitol on February 24, 2010, during which more than 20 federal lawmakers  joined an estimated 5,000 fishermen from around the country for a three-hour rally supporting national fisheries reform. While the grassroots effort was secured through this historic event, behind the scenes on Capitol Hill other lawmakers were being influenced by opposing political interests who were ardent supporters of the restrictive changes made to Magnuson back in 2006 and who have themselves lobbied against all efforts to reform the federal fisheries law.

According to RFA executive director Jim Donofrio, it was the immediate closure of the recreational amberjack fishery in the fall of 2009 which became the final straw in calling for a national rally. “Whether or not the national trades groups wanted individual owner-operators speaking up for their rights in DC didn’t really matter to us, nor does it matter to us today. Our local fishermen have grown incensed at the ongoing closures and are willing to fight for legislative reform, with the national trades support or without.”

“RFA members in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions would not be fishing on summer flounder today if it weren’t for the actions of a few key lawmakers in building extended rebuilding deadline into the 2006 reauthorization, but now we have rebuilt stocks like black sea bass and scup being taken away from those same Mid-Atlantic anglers, cod and haddock in New England, red snapper, grouper and kingfish down south, rockfish off the coast of California. These are the fish species generating support for Magnuson reform in Congress.”

Donofrio said as these vitally important recreational fisheries were deemed off-limits to anglers, the local fishermen have gotten more active in the process. “As representatives of the individual marine anglers, the local tackle shops which service those customers and the for-hire captains that bus folks out to the fishing grounds, RFA has always been committed to the belief that all politics is local, and we remain dedicated, both publicly and privately, to promoting legislation that protects coastal access to these stocks. Members expect us to stick to our guns on this.”

In response to the specific issues with species like black sea bass, porgies, summer flounder, cod, haddock, summer flounder, amberjack, gag grouper, kingfish, as well as red snapper and vermillion, among others, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) re-introduced the Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011, with additional support from Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL), Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY), Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI), Rep. Peter King (R-NY), Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) and Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY).

Similar to previous legislation introduced just after the Magnuson reauthorization in 2007, the “Flexibility Bill” (HR3061) calls for extending the authorized time period for rebuilding certain overfished fisheries, while also providing the Secretary of Commerce with authority to suspend annual catch limits (ACLs) if a stock is either rebuilt or deemed not overfished, or when the level of uncertainty in the data is not consistent with National Standard 8 (best available science).

While there are eight pieces of Magnuson reform legislation being reviewed in the House Resource Committee, HR3061 is the only bill that specifically addresses those coastal fisheries which have led to angler unrest across the country. RFA’s Donofrio called it “critical” that language contained in the Flexibility Bill is incorporated into whatever legislation is ultimately passed out of the Committee for congressional response in 2012.

“There’s another bill in Committee popular with the national trade associations and the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) that will help suspend ACLs and accountability measures only on those stocks not assessed in the past 5 years like mahi and cobia which is certainly fine, but these aren’t the fish stocks creating access problems for our local fishermen right now,” Donofrio said. “Some folks can’t deal with honest criticism, but trying to steamroll a bill through Congress that doesn’t address any real problems is not something that RFA is going to allow happen without criticism.”

The Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011 contains language which would require NOAA Fisheries’ Science and Statistical Committees to provide detailed reports to justify any of their management recommendations while identifying areas where precautionary management approach was applied. HR3061 also calls on regional councils to calculate the socioeconomic impact of their management decisions on an annual basis and report upon what impact management decisions will have on the future socioeconomic value.

“This is a jobs bill for our recreational fishing community, which is why RFA has been working so hard with key members of Congress to ensure that this language is included in the final bill,” Donofrio said. “We don’t need some ‘pass this bill now, we’ll see what happens later’ effort, we need common-sense fisheries reform so that anglers can keep on fishing while local businesses remain solvent.”

Donofrio said groups who are pushing for one legislative fix over all others are taking dire risks with the future of the recreational fishing community by threatening to disregard any real improvements in the scientific side of fisheries management. “There is clear understanding within our fishing communities that the House and Senate version of the so-called Fisheries Science and Improvement Act pushed by the national trade groups won’t apply to the most sought after recreational fisheries nor will they have any direct impact on science, but just because the bills don’t do much doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.”

Donofrio called scientific improvement a “top priority of the RFA and the fishing industry,” explaining how better science tends to foster better management decisions. “However, if a science bill with no real science is moved through Congress, it makes our already difficult job of lobbying Congress for additional research funds even harder given that legislators may be under the mistaken impression that they’ve already addressed the science issue with this bill.”

From a practical standpoint, RFA sees passage of these bills without amendment as potentially stifling of future involvement of the fishing industries in working to improve fisheries science. “Many species such as king mackerel and summer flounder experienced great improvements to their assessment approach due to efforts by the fishing industry, but if Congress were to pass a law that only protects fish stocks not scientifically assessed, fishermen may see the only way to avoid the damage of ACLs is by stopping stock assessments altogether or simply allowing them to run with such poor data that they actually fail peer review.”

Recreational fishing industry leaders have made frequent requests to NOAA over the years for additional social and economic impact studies, enhanced stock assessments, and significant improvements in the recreational angler participation data. In response to angler requests and concerns, congressional representatives put forth the Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011 to specifically address these science and statistical issues.

“HR3061 would charge the National Research Council with performing a comprehensive review of the current recreational data collection systems to determine what changes, if any, were made since their last report in 2006,” Donofrio said. “Other bills on the docket don’t specifically address NOAA’s disregard for their scientific requirements so I really can’t fathom why the national trade groups under the direction of CCA lobbyists would oppose these local efforts.”

In 2008, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) was asked by coastal organizations to support Congressman Pallone’s efforts to amend Magnuson via the original flexibility bill (HR5425). In a letter to industry representatives dated April 30, 2008, ASA vice president Gordon Robertson said “After extensive deliberation by the Government Affairs Committee, ASA neither supports nor opposes HR5425.”

RFA managing director Jim Hutchinson points out that just three months after ASA voted to take no position on allowing limited deadline flexibility, the tackle and boating trade associations (ASA and NMMA) together introduced former CCA Louisiana staffer Jefferson Anglers as their federal fisheries lobbyist of record at their newly created Center for Coastal Conservation, a political group launched with the expressed support of “ending overfishing by a time certain” and “rebuilding plans for fisheries with time constraints.”

“I think many manufacturers thought in 2008 that they were getting a political bulldog that would fight for their customers’ access rights, but based on the CCC tenants and mission and Mr. Angers’ own lobbying efforts, it seems as if all of the industry’s political funding has been used to confuse legislators, local anglers and the owners of fishing related businesses,” Hutchinson said. “RFA didn’t create the conflict between the industry and their own political mouthpiece, we’re simply shining a light on an obvious leadership issue.”

“How does one group without a public position and another group with a public position of support, suddenly create an umbrella organization with an opposing point of view, then expect to be taken seriously,” Hutchinson asked. “As an overall policy, we don’t criticize organizations that are effective, only those which are clearly being dishonest.”

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