Council for Sustainable Fishing urges Congress to pass proposed Magnuson-Stevens Act reforms, asks for moratorium on no-fishing zones off Southeastern states

MURRELLS INLET, SC – The Council for Sustainable Fishing, a nonprofit advocacy group for commercial and recreational fishing interests, Tuesday sent a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee and its Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) urging passage of Hastings’ proposed Magnuson-Stevens Act reform legislation and asking for inclusion of a moratorium on controversial no-fishing zones off the Southeastern states.

“The CFSF supports your proposed Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization legislation entitled ‘Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act’ and urges its passage by Congress. Commercial and recreational fishermen and related businesses have unnecessarily suffered severe economic losses as a result of the inflexible mandates of the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens Act,” Council for Sustainable Fishing Executive Director Tom Swatzel wrote.

“The CFSF strongly urges inclusion in the legislation of at least a five year moratorium on the establishment of any additional live bottom Marine Protected Areas in the South Atlantic region…We believe a five year moratorium on MPAs in the South Atlantic will protect fishermen and the coastal economy from an arbitrary and capricious fishery council decision and allow time for a systematic evaluation of the existing deep-water MPAs and quantification as to their impacts on enhancing speckled hind and warsaw grouper populations,” continued Swatzel.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is considering a plan that could create over 1,000 square miles of additional deep-water MPAs off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and east Florida, in which all bottom-fishing would be prohibited, to reduce the bycatch of speckled hind and warsaw grouper.

In 1994, commercial sales of speckled hind and warsaw grouper were prohibited and the recreational bag limit for each species was reduced to one, and in 2010 the fisheries were closed as a precautionary measure.

The SAFMC’s own scientific advisors have questioned the justification of the proposed MPAs, stating in an April 2012 report: “Given all of the current regulations that affect other snapper grouper species, it is possible overfishing for speckled hind and Warsaw grouper is no longer occurring. …There isn’t enough scientific backing to say [area] closures will do what managers need them to do. …Currently, there is no analysis that shows any conservation benefits of [area] closures to these species.”

The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Development Foundation Observer Project “concluded the bycatch level of speckled hind/warsaw grouper was too low to generate an estimate of bycatch for the South Atlantic commercial snapper grouper fishery” according the SAFMC’s draft MPA amendment.

Eight existing South Atlantic deep-water MPAs banning bottom-fishing, totaling about 530 square miles, were established in 2009, to protect deep-water snapper-grouper species, particularly speckled hind and warsaw grouper.

“In the nearly five years these MPAs have existed, no systematic monitoring has occurred to evaluate their effectiveness. In fact the SAFMC voted in 2006 to remove an evaluation plan from the MPA plan because the council did not want to be held accountable for its execution or funding,” Swatzel wrote.

The impacts of the 2007 version of the MSA have been especially felt in the South Atlantic snapper-grouper fishery, where from 2007 to 2012, fishing effort and landings from all sectors combined plunged by nearly 40 percent and 35 percent respectively.

Hastings’ legislation would, among other things, increase the time period for regional fishery management councils to end overfishing from 2 to 3 years, give the councils the flexibility to institute fishery rebuilding plans that extend beyond the existing 10 year mandate, and allow consideration of ecosystem changes and the economic needs of fishing communities in establishing annual catch limits.

A congressionally requested report from the National Research Council released in September said that more flexibility in the length of fishery rebuilding plans is needed. The report stated that there was a “…mismatch between the current prescriptions for rebuilding within a limited time frame and the uncertainties inherent in assessing and managing fisheries given data limitations and complex ecosystem dynamics where fishing is only one of many influences on fish populations.”

The legislation “provides regional fishery management councils with a more practical timeframe for ending overfishing and needed flexibility in establishing fishery rebuilding plans,” Swatzel wrote.

Hastings’ legislation would also require referendum approval of any proposed “catch share” programs in the South Atlantic region by a majority of the affected fishery permit holders.

A catch share-based fishery management plan takes a fishermen’s landings and converts them to “shares” that can be bought and sold much like a commodity on Wall Street.

“Fishermen in the South Atlantic have been overwhelmingly opposed to “catch share” programs, particularly in the snapper-grouper fishery, and rightly so since studies have shown that these programs provide no biological benefit to fisheries and destroy jobs. We very much support the proposed legislation’s requirement for referendum approval of any proposed catch share programs in the South Atlantic by a majority of the affected fishery permit holders,” Swatzel wrote.

The House Natural Resources Committee has held eight hearings over the past three years related to fisheries management and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Members of the public interested in commenting on Hastings’ draft legislation can email [email protected]

The Council for Sustainable Fishing has a unique multistate membership combination of commercial and recreational fishermen, seafood dealers and wholesalers, restaurateurs, and chefs in the South Atlantic region that have a stated mission of “optimizing and sustaining fishing opportunities for commercial and recreational fishermen to aid the coastal economy of the region and ensure stable seafood availability to consumers.”

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