Alaskans weigh in on federal fishing law

Posted: Thursday, July 07, 2005

Federal lawmakers are poised to take a new look at federal fishing law, but many Alaskans this week are cautioning them:

How the law could change

Among the recommendations provided by Alaskan regulators and fishing groups to the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans:

• Maintain the current structure of the regional fisheries councils. Some critics, including ocean conservation groups, complain the councils are too dominated by the industries they regulate.

• Don't establish specific rules for ecosystem-based management of fisheries until more is learned about the complex inter-relationships between marine species.

• Exempt Alaska waters from federal rules for essential fish habitat unless federal authorities list a species in state waters for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

• Increase Congressional funding for marine science research.

• Continue to expand a program that eliminates traditional derby-style fisheries and requires individuals or groups to buy shares in the total catch, called dedicated access privileges or individual fishing quotas (IFQs). One of the most controversial examples is the ongoing effort to "rationalize" the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries.

• Improve the existing quota share programs to stem escalating costs for second-generation fishermen who want to buy into the program.

• Bar private seafood processors from buying shares in IFQ-type fisheries in order to keep those fisheries in the hands of independent fishermen and coastal communities.

• The state and some industry groups support removing federal fisheries management from regulation under the National Environmental Protection Act. Some fishing and conservation groups are adamantly opposed to the change, saying NEPA is essential.

• Change the definition of overfishing, which currently includes stocks that are declining from natural causes.

Don't mess with a good thing.

Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act - which regulates fisheries such as pollock, black cod and halibut in federal waters - in 1976, and the law is up for reauthorization this year.

"The act works pretty good as written," said David Bedford, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"In my world, if you can get to something that's actually working and doesn't have a lot of hot-button issues, that's a good thing," said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.

Both Bedford and Kelley testified Wednesday in Ketchikan at the first of two Congressional subcommittee hearings in Alaska this week on the reauthorization of the fisheries act.

Despite overall satisfaction with the act as it stands, the state of Alaska suggested a few significant revisions on Wednesday.

The Murkowski administration wants Congress to exempt federal fisheries from the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), arguing that the Magnuson act already contains similar language to protect the environment.

The state is also lobbying for exemption from federal rules for essential fish habitat in state waters, saying its own rules are sufficient.

The House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans is hosting the hearings in Alaska. Nine witnesses testified at the first hearing in Ketchikan.

The second hearing is Friday in Kodiak.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council is unhappy with the suggestion to exempt federal fisheries from NEPA. "NEPA has provided a wonderful mechanism for really good ideas to get on the table. It might be cumbersome at times but the outcome is better," said the council's executive director, Dorothy Childers.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council exemplifies how the Magnuson act is working well now, said David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a consortium of businesses and communities involved in the state's groundfish industries.

He said the council is making sound decisions, such as its decision this year to protect a vast area in the Aleutians from bottom trawling.

Benton said the NEPA process doesn't mesh well with the Magnuson act process, and has caused a big legal hassle for federal regulators. "Lawsuits are a slam dunk" because of the inconsistencies between the two acts, he said.

If the Magnuson act isn't exempted from NEPA, the two laws should at least be streamlined, he said.

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