Chairman Stevens' Article for the Kodiak Daily Mirror's Special FishCom Section

March 23, 2005

Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens authored this article for the Kodiak Daily Mirror's special edition for ComFish Alaska's 26th Annual Trade Show & Policy Summit.

Published March 17, 2005

Last year I wrote to ComFish about the views and recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission. Now, as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, it is my job to lead the effort to implement many of these recommendations and oppose others. A top priority of the Committee will be the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other ocean-policy related legislation.

Senator Inouye, my great friend and Co-Chairman of the Commerce Committee, and I created several new subcommittees at the beginning of the year. The intent is to provide an increased focus on oceans and environmental policy. The Committee agreed to our proposal to reinstitute the National Ocean Policy Study as a subcommittee to work on the non-fisheries recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Senator Sununu of New Hampshire will head up this subcommittee with Senator Boxer of California as the senior Democrat. We also created two new subcommittees that will ultimately contribute to the discussion on the health of our oceans: the subcommittee on Global Climate Change and Impact, chaired by Senator Vitter from Louisiana with Senator Lautenberg from New Jersey, and the Disaster Prevention and Prediction subcommittee, chaired by Senator DeMint from South Carolina and Senator Nelson of Nebraska as the senior Democrat. The subcommittee on Fisheries and the Coast Guard will continue to be chaired by Senator Snowe of Maine with Senator Cantwell from Washington as the new senior Democrat.

Many Committee Members asked to be directly involved in the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has traditionally been done in the subcommittee on Fisheries and the Coast Guard. To accommodate these requests, the work on this legislation will be handled at the full Committee, so each can contribute. Working at the full Committee will allow all Committee Members to provide input from their respective regions on how to improve the Act.

The Bush Administration has contributed to the oceans debate with the submission to Congress of its “U.S. Ocean Action Plan.” Released this past December, the Plan is a formal response to the recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. President Bush also created by Executive Order the “Committee on Ocean Policy” to coordinate and improve federal effort on ocean-related matters. This Committee will consist of every government agency whose policies impact the ocean and will be staffed at the highest levels of government.

Not since the 1966 Stratton Commission, which recommended the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has there been such an intense interest and momentum to address ocean management issues. It is an exciting and important time for the Senate Commerce Committee, and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act will be the jumping off point for the discussion on ocean policy.
The task of crafting a Magnuson-Stevens bill will be both a priority and a challenge for our Committee. It is a priority because the Magnuson-Stevens Act is one of the most important federal statutes for the State of Alaska, and other coastal states. Commercial fishing and related industries provide roughly 50 percent of private sector employment in our State, and revenues from fisheries are second only to those from oil production. Our challenge is to update the Act without disrupting the legal framework that has produced successful fishery conservation and management in the North Pacific and other regions.

To meet this challenge, we will do what I did in the mid-1970s when I wrote the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act – listen. Our goal is to listen to the fishermen, processors, communities, managers, Regional Council members, policy makers, conservationists, and concerned citizens who care about sustainable fisheries. Senator Inouye and I, along with other Committee members, recently held a listening session with the Chairs and Executive Directors of the eight Regional Councils. Stephanie Madsen, Chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and Chris Oliver, Executive Director, participated in the listening session. The meeting, while informal and off the record, generated a great deal of discussion about problems that Councils face. We intend to replicate that session with other groups and try to craft legislation that meets many of the shared concerns, but also tackle some of the complexities that have hindered the effectiveness of the Act. A formal Committee hearing will be held, however, the listening sessions provide an informal setting for Members to explore the problems of the current system of fishery management and conservation.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act authorization expired after 1999, although its substantive provisions remain in effect. Congress last reauthorized the Act in 1996 with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act. The issues in the current debate are complex but the need to improve fisheries management has never been more critical.

Ecosystem-based management is an issue of considerable importance. Our Committee will scrutinize how, and/or whether, ecosystem-based management should be defined under the Act. Defining management efforts too broadly has resulted in litigation that frustrated the underlying goal of conservation and management. In fact, we learned from the listening session, Regional Councils are already doing some ecosystem-based management. We need to make sure the Councils receive recognition under the Act for the ecosystem-based management they are presently implementing.

A closely related issue is how to effectively utilize marine designations to protect critical habitat and fishery resources. Specifically, are marine designations contemplated on a species-by-species approach or on an ecosystem-based approach?

This raises another significant problem – litigation. We have heard time and again how excessive litigation has become in the “process” under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The workload of the Regional Councils has shifted from innovative fishery management to crafting Environmental Impact Statements, not to protect the marine environment but to survive litigation. This stifles conservation and management and must be corrected.

We plan to discuss quota systems and how best to rationalize and decapitalize our nation’s different fisheries. Other matters such as the role of the Regional Councils, bycatch reduction, gear modification research, MSA and NEPA, setting mandatory Total Allowable Catch levels, and international/high seas management will also be received and analyzed to determine how best to address these matters in legislation.

Ultimately, we seek to establish a baseline of understanding on what needs to be done to improve the effectiveness of the Act. Our goal is to craft strong legislation that will provide for sustainable fishing practices and the protection of critical habitat and non-fisheries resources including marine mammals. We will seek to decrease litigation under the Act, reduce bycatch, and allow for sound science to be the basis for management and conservation. Alaska will have a large role in this endeavor and I look forward to hearing from you all on how to improve fisheries management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.