Other Voices: Pombo’s Bill Threatens Fisheries

A battle is looming in the nation’s Capitol over how best to manage the nation’s ocean fisheries. It has been a decade since Congress considered changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the nation’s primary ocean fisheries law. Since that time, the US Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission concluded that our oceans suffer from over-fishing, habitat degradation and pollution, and that a strong response to these problems is urgently needed.

Against this backdrop, lawmakers are debating how to revise and renew the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Given that only 13 percent of all federally managed ocean fish stocks are known to be healthy, and this number has not improved since 2001, our leaders have their work cut out for them.

Portraying himself as an ocean champion, Richard Pombo, R-Calif, chair of the House Resources Committee, has introduced a bill, H.R. 5018, that will severely weaken current fisheries law and exacerbate a decaying management system. Left to stand unchallenged, Pombo’s bill will deep-six US fisheries, and the next chance to undo the damage may not surface for another 10 years. Why should Virginians be concerned about a bill that regulates fishing from three miles to 200 miles off their coast? When you consider that the Magnuson-Stevens Act regulates commercial and recreational fishing, the reasons become more clear. Consider the following: According to Fisheries of the United States by the National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2004, recreational fishing in Virginia ranked seventh for finfish harvested, 14.8 million pounds; third for out-of-state anglers, 423,000 pounds; and eighth for number of angler trips, 3.5 million.

That computes to a lot of bait and tackle sales, fuel and food purchases and many hotel stays. In 2004, commercial fishing in Virginia generated more than $160 million. In the Hampton Roads area alone, commercial fishery landings ranked third in the nation with $100.6 million. Clearly, fishing is a major contributor to Virginia’s economy.

Such noteworthy economic benefits will be jeopardized if H.R. 5018 becomes law. Currently, the bill weakens the criteria for identifying depleted fish stocks, provides more exceptions from requirements to rebuild depleted stocks, blocks public access to fisheries data, denies the public the opportunity to participate in management decisions, and exempts fishery management plans from the National Environmental Policy Act.

Moreover, Pombo’s bill gives the public short shrift by denying them an independent seat on the regional fishery management councils, the industry-dominated panels that make most fish management decisions.

Sixteen years ago, Virginia’s commercial fishermen landed a record 786.7 million pounds of fish, compared to 481.5 million pounds in 2004. Wouldn’t it be great if Virginia could once again reach such record landings? It can, if Virginia’s congressional delegation and Congress support meaningful and needed reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Virginians should tell their representatives and senators to defend and strengthen the Magnuson-Stevens Act by supporting science-based management; affording the public the right to access fisheries data; strengthening over-fishing requirements; and maintaining the requirement that fishery management actions comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.