Proposed changes to US fishing laws pit Young against conservationists

PORTLAND, Maine — A plan to update federal fishing laws has sparked a debate among fishermen and conservationists about whether proposed changes will undo years of work to rebuild key fish populations.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has proposed several changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that he says will give fishery managers more flexibility in rebuilding fish stocks. He has said the changes will allow fishery managers to address the economic needs of fishermen.

But some fishermen and environmentalists said Young's proposal creates dangerous exemptions from catch limits that are designed to prevent overfishing. They point to a recent federal report that says several economically valuable East Coast fish stocks are rebounding and no longer subject to overfishing as evidence that the Magnuson-Stevens act is effective in its current form.

"If you want to tweak something, let's have an honest discussion about fishing," said Mike Colby, president of Double Hook Charters in Clearwater, Florida. "This takes us back to an area and a time where we don't want to be."

The changes are the subject of a House Committee on Natural Resources meeting on Thursday. The proposed revisions of Magnuson-Stevens could be tweaked further during the meeting. The measure does not yet have a companion in the Senate.

Young has defended the proposed changes, which include a section that says fishing regulators may "consider changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of the fishing communities" in setting annual catch limits. He wrote in March that "there ultimately comes a time when we must review and update our laws to keep pace with the changing dynamics of our industry and ensure they are being implemented as intended."

The proposal also calls for the use of electronic monitoring to provide real-time information to fishery managers and cut down on the sometimes burdensome cost of hiring people to serve as on-board monitors. That piece of the proposal is wise, but the planned changes to catch limits risk creating a departure from science-based quotas, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association.

"There are a lot of people scared of losing their business who would probably be banging on the drum of flexibility," Martens said. "At a certain point we need to be thinking about the long term."

The changes also risk reducing accountability for managing recreational red snapper fishing, a key industry in the Gulf of Mexico, said Ted Morton, director of U.S. Oceans for Pew Charitable Trusts.