Rules on bycatch, other fishing regs up for changes; Public asked to weigh in

Proposed changes would rein in bycatch; Opponents include AK CDQ groups who say reg changes will cause "industry chaos."

by | May 26, 2023

Rules affect bycatch, fishery allocations, community impacts

Since 1976 all fishing in federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore, has been dictated by regulations outlined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). The regulations, which some call the “10 Commandments of Fishing,” are formally titled National Standards.

Now, many lawmakers and NOAA Fisheries say it’s time to update some of the standards to reflect today’s changing realities.

Deadline to weigh in on the proposed changes is September 12.

The MSA has been renewed and revised twice, in 1996 and 2006. Last September, a long-sought rewrite of the MSA called the “Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act” was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee. The lawmakers pointed out that the guidelines have not been updated for nearly 17 years. Since then changes in environmental conditions, shifting distributions of fish stocks, and equity and environmental justice concerns are at the forefront.

NOAA Fisheries stated that these and other events “suggest a need to revisit the guidelines to ensure they remain appropriate for current U.S. fisheries management.”

In a press release this month announcing the start of the comment period in the Federal Register, NOAA Fisheries said it “strongly supports the need to improve adaptability of our management processes in the context of changing environmental conditions and ensure equity and environmental justice (that is, equity applied to environmental laws, policies, and practices) within the fishery management process.”

The proposed changes call for updating three of the National Standards:

NS4 which deals with allocating or assigning fishing privileges fairly among all users and “shall not discriminate between residents of different states;”

NS8 which focuses on taking into account “the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities by utilizing economic and social data … in order to (a) provide for the sustained participation of such communities, and (b) to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities;” and,

NS9 which deals with bycatch and “requires that conservation and management measures shall, to the extent practicable, (a) minimize bycatch and (b) to the extent bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the mortality of such bycatch.”

Pushback by Republicans and Industry who say rule changes will cause “chaos”

Making changes to the bycatch rules has drawn the most pushback — notably the proposal to scratch the term “to the extent practicable” which allows for lots of legal loop holing.

Republican lawmakers have raised objections arguing that the long-running MSA system is “a success” and “at risk from the proposed changes.”

More than 40 national and regional fishing industry groups and dozens of individual fishermen also sent the House Natural Resources Committee a warning of potential consequences if the measure is passed.

In a letter, they called the proposed changes to the MSA “overly partisan” and said it could throw the industry “into chaos.”

The opponents said that bycatch is a reality in every commercial and recreational fishery and a mandate to absolutely minimize bycatch in all circumstances … “could very well lead to managers or the courts shutting down fisheries where bycatch cannot be eliminated.”

Their letter went on: “Sustainable federal fisheries will be curtailed or shut down entirely. Waves of opportunistic litigation will create uncertainty. Seafood sector workers, including in remote coastal communities, will lose their jobs. Seafood buyers will run short on domestic inventory and be forced to procure more product from foreign sources. American consumers will see seafood prices spike at their local restaurants and grocery stores, and they will turn to less nutritious food options and proteins with far higher carbon footprints than wild seafood…Similarly, some of our nation’s biggest fisheries would meet the definition of forage fish in your legislation, needlessly requiring strict new limitations on directed fishing.”

AK opponents include Native CDQ groups

Letter signers of Alaska interest who oppose updating the three fishing standards include four Alaska Native CDQ groups: Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, Coastal Villages Region Fund, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association.

Also, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, OBI Seafoods, Northern Seiners of Kodiak, United Catcher Boats, Groundfish Forum, Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, At-sea Processors Association, Alaska Groundfish Data Bank and Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association. Nine individual fishermen signed the letter, eight from Kodiak, one from Homer.

Feds offer bycatch comment clues

NOAA Fisheries provides some guidance on the input it hopes to receive from the public as it considers revisions to the fishing rules.

It “welcomes comments” on ways to better balance the needs of bycatch and target fisheries in a manner that is equitable across different fisheries and gear types, especially when one or more fisheries are important for underserved communities.

It also “welcomes input” on whether the agency should consider: (1) adding provisions to address bycatch on an ecosystem level (as opposed to single species metrics), (2) implementing provisions for alternative performance-based standards, or (3) increasing provisions to document bycatch avoidance.

For the first time, the agency also wants to hear ideas on potential uses of bycatch.

It is calling for “revisions to the NS9 guidelines that could encourage provisions to incentivize reduction of waste, including use of innovations that decrease bycatch ( e.g., gear innovations or adjustable area closures that avoid certain species or sizes of fish), decrease bycatch mortality ( e.g., gear innovations that improve the health and survival of discards), or increase use while dis-incentivizing catch of overfished or low productivity stocks ( e.g., allowing a fishery to retain and sell what would otherwise be required to be discarded either through purchasing quota share or other types of compensation; or allowing bycatch to be donated to food shelters so that it is not wasted but also does not lead to economic gains).”

Presentations planned for Q&A; Comment by September 12

NOAA Fisheries will provide a presentation (virtual or in-person) at upcoming Council meetings to answer questions and hear feedback on proposed changes to the three fishing standards.

The agency will also host a national webinar on changes to the Guidelines on June 12th at 1:00-2:30 ET.

The webinar can be accessed using this link (password AppQPS OR 3277777) or by using this call-in number: 1-415-527-5035 (access code: 276 204 65970).


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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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