NET's Gerry Leape examines the political outlook for Magnuson-Stevens bill

Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens bill, which governs the nation's fisheries, is shaping up to be a contentious process, with competing legislative proposals from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.). During today's OnPoint, Gerry Leape, vice president for marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust, delves into the details of these three bills, and discusses why environmental groups feel that strict catch limits are a top priority. Plus, Leape discusses whether lawmakers can move the bill this year, and whether they will be able to act on recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me today is Gerry Leape. He's the vice president from marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust. Gerry thanks a lot for being here today.

Gerry Leape: Nice to be with you.

Brian Stempeck: In the last couple of weeks, the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act has really gotten under way. Different bills moving in the House, the Senate. More momentum behind this than in the past. Before we get into the details of the different bills I just want to ask you kind of straight up, what is your top priority as you look at the reauthorization of this major bill, which really governs all the nation's fisheries?

Gerry Leape: Our top priority is to get accountability and enforcement into the act. The underlying provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, directives to end overfishing, to reduce bycatch and to protect habitat are there. The real failure over the last 10 years has been failure to implement and hold the fishery's councils accountable for their work.

Brian Stempeck: In terms of a specific item that you would like to see in one of the bills, what does that mean? We hear people talk a lot about accountability on different environmental issues. How do you enforce these kinds of regulations? What do you mean specifically by accountability?

Gerry Leape: Well Senator Stevens, in his introduced bill, offered a great example of this. Each fishery management council annually is required to establish catch limits for each fishery under their jurisdiction. But then there's no requirement for them to adhere to those catch limits. And he said, "Enough is enough. When we're in Alaska we don't allow that at the North Pacific and no one else should either." So he has a provision in there that would say we set a catch limit, if you exceed its going to come off either the next year or the next time we set these catch limits again.

Brian Stempeck: At the same time this item in the bill, that came under a lot of pressure from some of the senators in the Northeast. And it has been made to be a bit more flexible than it was in the original Stevens bill, correct?

Gerry Leape: It has. And we are working with Senator Stevens, who has always been an ally on fish conservation. He was the leader in '96 to get the original mandates to protect habitat, reduce bycatch and eliminate overfishing. And we're working with him to try and get as strong a provision as possible in this year's bill. So we can move forward to the next step and get stronger implementation of what, underlying, is a strong law on conservation.

Brian Stempeck: How much resistance do you expect from some of the senators in the Northeast? You have Senator Kerry, a lot of the senators in Maine, who are coming from states where there's major fishing communities and are pretty opposed to this sort of thing.

Gerry Leape: Well, I think initially they were, but I think they're starting to hear from their industry that's seeing the writing on the wall. We saw, in '92, the collapse of the cod fishery in Canada. And there's a growing recognition we don't want that to happen in New England. And there's growing numbers of fishermen who are saying, OK, maybe we need to start having limits, stricter limits and stricter rules so we can continue to fish here. So we can continue to be here two or three years from now and not be out of business next year.

Brian Stempeck: One of the major recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which basically put out a large report last year talking about a lot of the problems in Magnuson-Stevens currently. They talked about basically the need to elevate some of the science. A lot of the scientific concerns about when a region is being overfished are not being taken into account by the fishery council and managers in the eight counsels you have around the country.

Gerry Leape: Right.

Brian Stempeck: How do you do that? How do you elevate the science and make that more of a part of kind of the everyday decision making by these councils?

Gerry Leape: Well one part of the annual process in these councils is scientists recommend to the council members, here's the amount of fish you should allow to be caught. Well, currently there's no requirement for the council members to say, OK, we'll set that as our limit. They can set it as the limit, but they can also set whatever limit they want. That practice has to stop. And I think increasing numbers of senators, even from New England, are realizing that's the case. But on the House side a traditional environmental leader, Barney Frank, is on the wrong side on fisheries issues. And he is fighting protecting science in the fishery management process. He wants to open up scientific peer review to the regulated community. He doesn't want it binding on the councils other than the initial decision. He doesn't want any accountability on the fishing fleets to have to abide by that allocation decision. So he really wants to send us back to where we were in '96, not where we need to be in 2006 going forward.

Brian Stempeck: Now Congressman Frank has basically teamed up with Congressman Pombo, the chairman of the House Resources committee on this bill. They're holding a field hearing up in New England, right now actually, as we taped this interview. What are your top concerns with the bill from Chairman Pombo? He also has a Magnuson-Stevens bill as well.

Gerry Leape: Yes, Chairman Pombo is in control of the Resources Committee and is likely to get his bill through. But we are working to get certain provisions fixed. One is the accountability on the catch limit provision. He says, yes, they should have to accept the scientist's recommendation for what a catch limit is. But there's no enforcement provisions if the fisheries don't abide by those limits. He also undermines NEPA. He says, in essence, we should waive the national Environmental Policy Act, which is a vehicle for public input into the decisionmaking and into the other impacts of fishery management decisions. We think that's critical. He also is including provisions that would eliminate access to public information, in the aggregate, about what's going on in fisheries, which us NGOs have depended upon to see whether bycatch is being reduced, whether overfishing is dealt with. He would remove that ability through the Freedom of Information Act and put it all off limits.

Brian Stempeck: At the same time though as Congressman Pombo is up in New England right now hearing from a lot of fishermen who have been affected by the previous regulations, there's a lot of fishing towns up in Massachusetts, up in Maine, that essentially have been shut down by a lot of these regulations. How do you respond to a lot of the kind of social and economic concerns of these fishing communities?

Gerry Leape: Well we are concerned about that and we think that Congress has a role to provide them transition and provide them some relief as we come up with a more sustainable fisheries management regime. There will be members of that industry that cannot only stay in, but will also be able to come back to. But in the meantime they are facing the real prospect of mortgages that they have to pay. And they deserve some transition. And also some help into what can they do next? We are sympathetic to that and are supportive of members who are trying to think creatively about how to take care of the fishing industry that will be thrust out of business or severely impacted by these changes.

Brian Stempeck: Well, wouldn't the very strict catch limits that you're talking about basically -- I mean you're talking about being flexible with some of these fishermen in these communities. But if you have very strict catch limits like the ones you're talking about supporting and Senator Steven's bill, doesn't that really go at odds with what you're talking about in terms of being flexible?

Gerry Leape: Well, no. Clearly when we talked about strict catch limits it doesn't always mean reductions. There are some fisheries that are coming back, which in essence could mean they could get higher catch limits. What we're saying is we have to have an agreed upon number that the scientists recommend. And that number has to be adhered to otherwise how can the scientist do their work in trying to make recommendations on how to bring these stocks back to where we can welcome more fishermen in? Where we can have stronger, more vibrant fishing communities. And also to take care of the ecosystem impacts, the animals that depend on fish to survive.

Brian Stempeck: What do you see as the political outlook for these bills this year? Right now, I know you also support a bill from Congressman Gilchrist, who's the chairman of the fisheries subcommittee. He has kind of a rival bill to Congressman Pombo's. And there's some talk of offering that as a substitute amendment on the House floor. And he has some support for that. Is that kind of the likely outlook here, that we could see a substitute from Congressman Gilchrist?

Gerry Leape: Well, first of all, the most important thing here is you have Senator Stevens who really wants to get this done this year. And he's got fundamentally a good bill. It doesn't roll back any of the conservation provisions and it makes steps forward in some areas. It's a perfect? No. But we feel it's a good foundation. Congressman Pombo's bill will be the main focus through the committee process. And then we are hoping, if all our concerns with Pombo's bill don't get answered, and we're not optimistic that they will, that there is possibility for a substitute on the floor. And the base of that probably will be Congressman Gilchrist's bill, but it may change to attract the kind of support he would need to make a good showing against Congressman Pombo. And so it's Senator Stevens who really holds the keys here to getting this done. Because if he wants to get it done Senator Stevens has a strong track record of coming to closure on issues before Congress ends. This is one of those issues that's not a top-tier issue. So I've gone through three Magnuson Act reauthorizations in my 15 years of working on fisheries issues. They're all handled in the last eight hours before the Congress adjourns. So it will be a nail biter all the way, but we are optimistic that this thing can get done if Senator Stevens keeps up his drive to finish the Magnuson Act reauthorization.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to ask you about that, I mean how realistic is it to think that that's going to get done this year? It's an election year. As you said, in the past it's gotten done in the last eight hours.

Gerry Leape: Right.

Brian Stempeck: You have immigration, you have gas prices, a lot of other issues to get done this summer and in the rest of the spring. Is it possible that this bill is really going to get, you know, get pushed to next year?

Gerry Leape: It could. We are hoping not. And we feel that if Senator Stevens keeps these as part of his focus, he's always in there at the end when they're trying to wind up the budget and do the final bills. And that's when the Magnuson Act has gotten done before. And that's where we think it could happen and should happen this year.

Brian Stempeck: NET and some other environmental groups just put out a report recently, I believe at the end of March, talking about how of all the federally managed fish species, about 13 percent of them were considered healthy stocks. The rest, not so much. Given that track record, that's looking pretty unsuccessful, where do you see success stories in terms of states taking action on this or other countries? Where do you see a program on fishery regulations that's actually working?

Gerry Leape: Well, we have one right here off the eastern coast, off the East Coast, with the stripers, the striped bass, OK? The community got together and they said, in the early '90s, "We need to stop fishing on this fish." And they did. It was an agreement across sectors. Because they did that it's come back. We have started to see come backs in some of the New England ground fish stocks, the cod, the haddock and the flounder. Some of the cod, parts of the cod population, still need additional time. But we're starting to see come backs. If you catch less fish and you protect their areas of habitat, they've got the time to rebuild and repopulate. And so we're optimistic that if we come up with a good regime these stocks can rebuild.

Brian Stempeck: What were the kinds of lessons learned in the scenarios though? I mean obviously in the Northeast we're talking about the cod stocks. That was pretty much a total shutdown of the fisheries up there.

Gerry Leape: Right. Well, I think in some cases more drastic action is necessary than others. In not every case do we have populations that are completely, at 10 percent of their historic population levels, like so many of the fish stocks in New England. There are other healthier fish stocks. And so we need to think about when we're fishing them, because if you fish when they're spawning, when they're trying to reproduce, that has a greater impact on the recruitment or the addition of fish to the next year's class. And so we can be smarter how we're managing the fish, while also, in many cases, but not all, having to reduce the catch.

Brian Stempeck: All right Gerry. We're out of time. Thanks a lot for being on the show today.

Gerry Leape: Thank you.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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