WASHINGTON – A proposed federal rule that would give regional councils more say in setting catch limits on fish has sparked rare friction between the Obama administration and environmental groups.
The proposal, years in the making, could take effect this summer. It would provide the eight councils “additional clarity and potential flexibility” to comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.
Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earth Justice say the change could roll back nearly a decade of progress in rescuing once-overfished populations.
Since Congress updated Magnuson-Stevens in 2006, the number of stocks labeled as overfished or subject to overfishing has dropped to the lowest level in 20 years of tracking.
“We would go backwards from what is now a pretty successful rule,” said Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Ocean Conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “This adds more flexibility to what was pretty clear guidelines, and our experience has been that when flexibility is provided to these fishery management councils, it’s not a good thing.”
The councils, which include state officials, environmental activists and industry representatives, determine catch limits on dozens of stocks, including cod off New England, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and salmon in the Pacific.
They follow science-driven guidelines — first issued in early 2009 in the waning days of the Bush administration — that are enforced through the "National Standard 1" regulation, which the proposed rule would modify.
The regulation has helped once-depleted fish stocks rebound, but the councils have drawn resentment from most recreational and some commercial fishermen, who have suffered under the catch limits and have tried to pressure the administration and lawmakers to loosen them.
Officials with the Fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the final rule will provide regional councils the latitude to change catch limits without compromising a stock’s health.
“We are absolutely adamant that we will continue to end overfishing,” Sam Rauch, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs in NOAA's fisheries division, told a Senate subcommittee recently. “We will rebuild stocks.”
That assurance has done little to comfort environmentalists.
Among their concerns is that regional councils will be allowed to determine a stock’s health — and the appropriate catch limit — by averaging population data across three years, as opposed to using the most recent one-year window. That change, environmental groups say, would lead to looser catch limits even if the most recent year showed a species was being overfished.
“If you’re going to be averaging it out, you might be missing opportunities to take action to help rebuild the population,” said Ted Morton, director of Federal Ocean Policy for Pew.
The groups also worry that a provision in the proposed rule would permit councils to expand catch limits for some stocks if fishermen don't use up all of the previous year’s quota. Allowing such “carryover” could result in a once-rebuilt stock ending up being overfished, they say.
Pew notes that recreational fishermen caught about 50% of their quota of gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico in 2014, and commercial fishermen caught about 70% of their allotment. Had the proposed rule been in place, Pew says, the limits would have been eased even though there were indications the gag population actually is declining.
Environmental groups never thought they’d be feuding with a president who has been an ally on climate change, alternative energy development and land preservation.
“One of the questions that we would ask is, does President Obama want to have an ocean legacy, at least as far as fish go, that’s not as good as George Bush,” Crockett said. “It’s surprising that we’d even ask that question, but we are.”
NOAA fisheries division has received approximately 100,000 comments on the proposed rule, including comments from environmental organizations and industry groups.
“We are currently working through the comments and will address their concerns," agency spokeswoman Connie Barclay said. “As far as a timeline, we are working through our process and hope to complete it later this year, probably in the late summer.”
Jerald Ault, a professor at the University of Miami’s Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society, generally agrees with Pew that the regional councils would take advantage of increased flexibility to expand catch limits. But he also said averaging population data over three years — and providing more data points — might actually be useful in getting a better handle on exactly how well stocks are doing.
And he said getting accurate data is critical for any strategy to work in managing catches.
“We diddle a bit in getting concerned about the fringes.” Ault said. “The core of this problem is really the information that we’re collecting to guide these very important economic, social and political decisions that revolve around fisheries.”