WASHINGTON – Dig out the tackle box and gas up the boat. The most sweeping overhaul of federal fishing laws in more than a decade is swimming its way through Congress – and long-frustrated recreational anglers are delighted.
The reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, passed by the House earlier this month largely along partisan lines, aims to give weekend fishermen expanded access to rebounding saltwater stocks that the decades-old law has helped rescue. A similar but more limited measure is making its way through the Senate and could be approved later this year.
Past efforts to loosen restrictions have largely died, in no small part due to opposition by the Obama administration. But private-boat anglers and the coastal businesses that support them sense momentum on their side, pointing to steps lawmakers have taken to advance their agenda and temporary actions the Trump administration has taken during the past year to expand saltwater access.
The Republican House bill, known as the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, would give the nation's eight regional fishery management councils more wiggle room to ease restrictions on what recreational anglers are allowed to catch in the federal waters that stretch out 200 miles off the U.S. coast.
Specifically, the measure would allow the councils to extend the rebuilding period for a depleted stock (now capped at 10 years) so that fishing could continue without having to impose painful catch limits to meet an approaching deadline. It also would exempt some stocks from being subject to annual catch limits, even in limited cases where they are overfished.
And it would allow the councils to consider more factors when determining fish counts for the purpose of setting those catch limits.
That's a fundamental shift applauded by the recreational angling community which says key species, like red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, are routinely undercounted. But environmental groups are slamming the proposal because they worry the change would gut the very science standards that have helped stocks bounce back over the past decade.
“This bill increases the risk of overfishing in ocean waters, delays the rebuilding of depleted fish populations, and undercuts the important role science plays in management decisions," said Ted Morton, director of Federal Ocean Policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Some charter boat captains, seafood restaurant chefs and commercial fishing interests have joined with activists in opposing the House bill.
But allies of recreational anglers say important fisheries such as red snapper, cobia, amberjack and triggerfish continue to experience unwarranted restrictions largely due to a lack of quality and timely data.
"If we can better align management approaches with available data, hopefully this will lead to more stable and improved fishing opportunities for these and many other fisheries," said Mike Leonard, conservation director for the American Sportfishing Association which represents the industries that support private fishing.
How we got here
Congress passed the original Magnuson-Steven Act in 1976 in response to aggressive foreign fishing boats operating only a few miles off the U.S. coast, particularly near Alaska. The bill pushed federal water boundaries from three to 200 miles from the shore, created a network of regional management councils, and established scientifically rigorous national standards designed to manage, protect and, if need be, rebuild some 500 stocks.
But overfishing continued until a 2006 reauthorization of the law closed loopholes and further tightened standards by mandating catch limits on distressed species. Dozens of stocks were rebuilt – 44 since 2000, according to NOAA Fisheries – and once-depleted fisheries began showing signs of life again.
Many of the nation's 49 million recreational anglers, who feel they have more than sacrificed by not being fully able to pursue their pastime in recent years, have been clamoring for expanded access the House bill affords.
Opponents of the reauthorization bill so far have been able to prevent a similar bill, known as the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act, from being voted on by the full Senate.
But Matt Tinning, associate vice president of oceans for the Environmental Defense Fund, worries that the measure could get approved later this year thanks in part to the election fortunes of two politically endangered Senate Democrats – Bill Nelson of Florida and Doug Jones of Alabama.
The Gulf Coast senators are co-sponsors of the bill and facing tough re-elections: Nelson this fall and Jones in 2020. Tinning said Democratic leaders who want to boost the both senators' chances at the ballot box might allow the inclusion of the fishing bill as part of a broader spending measure later this year.
"The question is whether (Senate Majority Leader Chuck) Schumer will see Bill Nelson and Doug Jones as sufficiently vulnerable and sufficiently important that he’s going to essentially mandate that this happens," he said.
Jim Donofrio, a New Jersey angler who heads the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said he hopes the Senate recognizes the sacrifices fishermen have made in recent years to rebuild the stocks by passing the House bill.
"Give us more days at sea. Give us more opportunity. Let the boats go out and fish. Let them go to the tackle stores. Buy more tackle. Keep the industry going. Sell more boats, more motors," he said. "We can't keep coming back and begging for fish that are there and that are available."