FISHERIES:

Attempt to ban new catch shares could gut management plans

House lawmakers last night advanced an ambitious effort to gut new fishery management proposals that are in the works along the East Coast.

The House approved, 220-191, a plan that would block the development, approval or implementation of new catch-share programs in the Gulf of Mexico and up the Eastern Seaboard.

The amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) was attached to a spending bill that will set funding levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for fiscal 2013. The House is continuing debate on the bill today.

The amendment continues an effort Republicans have been making for the past several years to limit the new fishery management programs. But it goes beyond previous attempts and could freeze work on at least five fishery management proposals in development.

The Obama administration has championed catch shares or "limited access privilege programs," which set fishing quotas and give fishermen control of a portion of an overall catch.

Advocates for the management plan say it halts the "race for fish" and can lead to more sustainable fisheries. But critics say ill-designed catch shares hurt small fishing operations and damage the economies of coastal communities. Southerland, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and other critics have pushed to block work on the new programs, concerned over how they could affect fishermen in their districts.

In heated debate on the issue last night, Southerland said it represented "nothing less than a battle to prevent freedom in our oceans."

"I am concerned about the commercial industry, but I am also concerned about individual rights and freedoms of American people. This is a public resource, a natural resource," he added.

His rider would prohibit funds in the bill from being used to develop, approve or implement a new limited access privilege program in four of the regional fishery management councils: the south Atlantic, mid-Atlantic, New England and Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA officials today said their legal counsel would have to examine the exact language included in a final bill to determine how it would affect the agency's work. But advocates tracking catch-share programs said it could affect five catch shares that are in development.

There are 15 catch-share programs in operation in the United States, including a new Alaska rockfish program implemented at the end of last year.

Councils are considering five other potential new catch-share programs. At least one of those, the south Atlantic golden crab, is slated for a council vote this year.

If the amendment makes it into final law, it could also affect ongoing work on catch shares for snapper and grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, New England monkfish, and Atlantic shark, as well as an effort to draft a large catch-share program for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

Advocates for the program say the wide-ranging amendment would be unfair to the fishing councils and fishermen who have been working, sometimes for years, to draft the new programs.

"Unilaterally taking these off the table and saying you can't consider these tools is sort of unnecessarily handcuffing the fishery managers who ... have been tasked with looking at the region's needs and designing the best management plan," said Elizabeth Fetherston, the Florida-based deputy director of the fish conservation program for the Ocean Conservancy.

She added, "These are pretty valuable tools to give the commercial fishery what they want, stability and value, and still protect the resources under their mandate under the law."

The catch-share programs are controversial because they turn traditional fisheries management upside down. Instead of limiting the fishing season or the number of days that boats are allowed at sea, regulators impose an overall catch limit and divide the total share among buyers. Fishermen can then control when they go out to fulfill their portion of the catch limit.

The amendment is the latest in a series of efforts to block funding for catch shares. The fiscal 2011 spending bill included a more narrow amendment that blocked NOAA from using any funds on the approval of new catch shares.

That language did little to change NOAA's work on the ground -- much to the chagrin of the lawmakers who had championed the amendment -- because no new catch shares were up for approval.

Under guidance from its general counsel, NOAA continued program development even though the nation's eight regional fishing councils were barred from taking final action to approve new catch-share efforts (E&E Daily, Nov. 4, 2011).

A bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed for more stringent restrictions in the fiscal 2012 spending bill, but they were not included in the final conference agreement (E&E Daily, Nov. 16, 2011).

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) last night asked his colleagues to keep the debate on the issue out of the spending process, noting that Southerland is a member of the Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over fisheries management laws.

"If he's got a complaint, why don't you go to your own committee and work on it rather than coming here and screwing up an appropriations bill?" Dicks asked. "We don't need riders, frankly. We appreciate your concern, but go talk to the chairman and you guys sit down and write some laws, if you can get them passed."

Reporter Laura Petersen contributed.

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