U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, will convene a hearing on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) starting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, August 1.

This hearing is the first in a series of Senate hearings to examine the state of our nation’s fishery laws and guide the reauthorization of our federal fisheries law. Witnesses slated to testify include Dr. John Quinn, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council Chairman, and Christopher Oliver, newly appointed Assistant Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

In early July, the recreational fishing and boating community praised the Senate introduction of the Modern Fish Act by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Brian Schatz (D-HI), John Kennedy (R-LA) and Joe Manchin (D-WA). Supported by the American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, International Game Fish Association and other groups, the new bill in the U.S. Senate (S.1520) would improve public access to America’s federal waters, promote conservation of our natural marine resources and spur economic growth within the recreational fishing community.

A companion bill (HR. 2023) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in April by Congressmen Garret Graves (R-LA), Gene Green (D-TX), Daniel Webster (R-FL) and Rob Wittman (R-VA). Despite the broad-based community support, as of late July neither S.1520 nor HR.2023 has any co-sponsor support from legislators in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York or any of the New England states.

“The Modern Fish Act will achieve many goals, the most important of which is getting more Americans outdoors and enjoying our wonderful natural treasures,” said Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association, the trades association for fishing tackle manufacturers nationwide. “This bipartisan legislation includes key provisions that will adapt federal fisheries management to manage recreational fishing in a way that better achieves conservation and public access goals.

“The Modern Fish Act would fix key issues in the law governing marine fisheries that keep recreational anglers from enjoying access to healthy fisheries,” said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, adding that the legislation would specifically address needs of the recreational fishing community.

An important provision of the bill would encourage use of alternative management approaches for the recreational sector. Since 1976, federal fisheries management has been guided by the Magnuson Act which has focused primarily on commercial fishing activities. As the coalition of recreational user groups has been stressing to legislators, commercial and recreational fishing are fundamentally different, however, and each requires different management approaches.

While state fishery managers use different management approaches for recreational and commercial sectors, NMFS is instead forced by law to manage recreational fisheries the same way as in the commercial sector —by setting a poundage-based quota and attempting to enforce it in real time through the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP, formerly known as MRFSS) in conjunction with season, size and bag limits based on “numbers” of fish.

Other MSA changes offered in the bill being discussed in the subcommittee on Capitol Hill this week include establishing reasonable exemptions for annual catch limits, strategically rebuilding fish stocks and improving recreational data collection.

“The simple adjustments in this bipartisan bill would continue to ensure conservation of our nation’s saltwater fisheries, while finally establishing greatly needed parity for the recreational fishing community,” added Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.

At a July 19, 2017 event on Capitol Hill hosted by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and other coalition groups, Nick Cicero of the Mahwah, NJ based Bimini Bay Outfitters and Folsom Corporation said federal fisheries laws dictating how recreational fisheries are managed need to be amended to take into consideration the limitations of the recreational data collection programs and their inability to be used for the fair and equitable enforcement of annual catch limits.%page_break%

“These amendments need to not only support the existing population of recreational anglers and fishing related businesses but also allow for new entrants to come into the fishery and businesses to grow and expand,” Cicero told recreational industry members assembled for a day of meetings with members of Congress.

“The law needs to recognize that in its current form, our tradition of fishing cannot be passed onto our children without MSA taking away opportunity from the rest of the fishing community,” Cicero said, adding “MSA, as it applies to the recreational fishing, is a flawed law, one that stifles growth of our industry and challenges the very future of our tradition.”

Opponents of angler efforts to reform the federal fisheries law include organizations like Pew Environment Group, Ocean Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and the Marine Fish Conservation Network. As sportsmen’s organizations convened in Washington DC on July 19 to ask members of Congress to help recognize the recreational sector through MSA reform, Charles Witek, a frequent critic of regulatory reform efforts and a blogger for the Marine Fish Conservation Network told members of the House Committee on Natural Resources that the law was doing just fine for coastal fishermen as it stands now.

However, in one particularly unusual exchange, Rep. Graves of Louisiana grilled Witek on his support for something called the “Catch Share Experience” where commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico with exclusive ownership of fish stock take charters fishing under their commercial quota; private anglers get to “experience” fishing by catching the commercial vessel owner’s fish on rod and reel, returning to the local fish market afterwards where they can buy fish at a retail price.

“Mr. Witek, I’ve heard that you’re a proponent of what some have called a catch share experience,” asked Rep. Garret Graves

“Yes I am,” Mr. Witek replied.

“I’m struggling with understanding how that’s an appropriate application of resources,” Rep. Graves replied. “It seems if there’s additional demand for recreational fishing, and it’s being handled by commercial fishers, it seems that’s more of a charter activity or a recreational activity, it seems that’s almost poaching.”

Donofrio somewhat agreed with Rep. Graves’ poaching assessment, but pointed out that’s just another flaw in the present law.

“They’re doing it under the law, but the whole thing is a conflict of interest. You’re either commercial or recreational, I mean you can’t have recreational fishermen going offshore on scallop boats,” Donofrio said. The fact that commercial shareholders in the Gulf of Mexico are harvesting more than enough to supply the United States with a daily supply of red snapper at $15 a pound for consumers, Donofrio said the “catch share experience” shows just how seriously flawed the federal fisheries law really has become.

“These fish barons, with the help of Environmental Defense Fund and the Obama administration, created this monster, cornering the market on Gulf red snapper, while leaving shareholders enough leftover fish to sell back to the recreational community,” Donofrio said. “Clearly our saltwater anglers are getting shut out by a broken law, and we simply cannot allow this same type of Wall Street takeover of any more of these fisheries shared between the commercial and recreational sector, whether snapper or sea bass, fluke or cod.”

In the same exchange with Rep. Graves, Witek claimed to be nothing more than a concerned recreational fisherman, yet the former Wall Street attorney refused to answer how he’d come into possession of unpublished discussion documents coming out of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Actually I would prefer not to answer that question,” Witek replied, seemingly invoking his Fifth Amendment rights before the congressional subcommittee.

On Friday, July 21, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) took a tour of Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor where they spoke to fishermen and captains on local head boats and visited Fishermen’s Den North to talk about ongoing issues in the recreational fishing community. While neither legislator sits on committees responsible for moving fisheries legislation along the proper channels, Donofrio said their support for HR.2023 and S.1520 would go a long way in seeing Magnuson reform move forward in this Congress.