Sen. Sullivan presses to re-approve law governing federal fisheries

Published: Aug. 24, 2017 at 9:29 AM AKDT
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Sooner or later, Congress will have to start wading through dozens of fights that go along with re-approving the key law that governs federally managed fisheries.

Sen. Dan Sullivan is pushing for sooner, pressing the Commerce Committee to start advancing a revisit of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, historically brushed up in Washington every decade or so, but not since 2007.

As part of Sullivan's effort to advance MSA to re-authorization, the Republican senator on Wednesday convened a meeting in Soldotna for a subcommittee that deals with fishery policy to hear testimony from a variety of industry leaders.

State and federal government leaders were among the 14 panelists, and so were commercial and sport fish business owners.

One view expressed by many stakeholders on the panels at Kenai Peninsula College was actually not directly related to MSA approval: The belief that the federal government needs to invest more money to improve quality of the data used to monitor escapement goals, bycatch, and other fishery benchmarks.

Without improvements, the industry could suffer mismanagement, leading to either over-fishing or unnecessary negative economic burdens on fishers.

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten said one issue he hopes to see addressed in a new version of MSA is a provision that would nullify a recent order from the Ninth Circuit Court that will soon force the federal government for the first time in history to approve the way the State of Alaska regulates three of its salmon fisheries.

"If the federal government takes over (that process) that since statehood has been managed by state law, are they ready to determine the harvest limits for each sector?" said Reed Morisky, a member of the state Fish Board. "How would differing management standards be coordinated?"

One area of concern expressed by many panelists, separate from MSA, is the idea that the federal government needs to invest more into efforts to collect accurate, timely data on fishery escapement, harvest and bycatch. Otherwise, the industry suffers an unnecessary hit because numbers are wrongly believed low, or assuming the opposite is true could lead to over-fishing.

While those debates and many more start to intensify again, one disagreement was already on full display.

Spud Woodward, fish director for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, complained of the rules for when fisheries are suspended as a conservation measure, and the process to measuring when numbers should rebound.

"The problem is we’re applying those goals across very diverse fish species and fish populations, and sometimes it’s simply impossible to rebuild some of these stocks back – especially if they’re long-lived species – in the period of time allocated and mandated by the law," Woodward said.

Conservationist groups see differently the issue of re-opening fisheries that once struggled.

"Rebuilding spans right now is 20 years. There has been quite a bit of flexibility allowed to make those plans specific to the fish in question," said Linda Behnken, president of the Halibut Coalition.

Those are just some of the disagreements that could be settled in Washington as soon as September, when the current recess ends, but it is far likelier a vote on a new version of MSA will happen next year at the soonest.