NOAA, groups back adding climate mandates to fishing law

November 17, 2021

NOAA’s top fisheries official yesterday endorsed a plan that would require the agency for the first time in its history to add climate change requirements to its management of the nation’s fish stocks.

“Fisheries management must continue to adapt as our ocean ecosystem faces unprecedented changes due to climate change,” Janet Coit, the head of NOAA Fisheries, told a House Natural Resources panel.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, Coit said NOAA appreciates “the overarching climate focus” of a proposed overhaul of the nation’s primary fishing law, the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Coit weighed in as the subcommittee heard testimony on a bill, H.R. 4690, sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), that would reauthorize the law and require NOAA to create plans for “climate ready fisheries.”

If approved, it would mark the first time that climate change received a mention in the federal fishing law, which Congress last reauthorized in 2006.

While Coit applauded the bill’s focus on the climate, she said the Biden administration had yet to do a comprehensive analysis of the legislation and is not yet ready to take an official position on it.

Among other things, she cited budgetary issues as one potential problem, saying the bill “would impose new mandates and workload requirements that the agency cannot meet with existing resources.”

Huffman, the panel's chair, introduced the “Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act” in July after conducting a two-year “listening tour” to collect ideas on possible changes (Greenwire, July 26).

At yesterday’s hearing, Huffman told his colleagues that the Magnuson-Stevens law had largely done its job and does not need major changes.

“It doesn’t need to be reinvented, but it needs to be updated, and at the top of the list of updates is climate change,” he said. “Fish stocks are changing, ecosystems are changing, how we manage fish needs to change as well.”

Before the hearing, five ocean conservation groups — Earthjustice, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana and Ocean Conservancy — said they were backing Huffman’s bill because it would “improve sustainable management, scale up climate-ready fisheries and support coastal communities.”

“As climate change rapidly alters the ocean, our nation’s fishery management law remains largely rooted in the 20th century,” the organizations said in a letter. “The Magnuson-Stevens Act currently lacks any mention of climate change and provides no guidance as to how managers should address climate impacts on fisheries.”

Huffman’s bill would order specific fixes, requiring NOAA to come up with “fishery management plans to incorporate climate change by promoting stock resilience, identifying data needs, examining the vulnerability of a fishery and its participants to climate change, and assessing the anticipated impacts of climate change.”

Fishery managers have scrambled in recent years to keep up with the increasing effects of climate change, with many fish stocks heading north to cooler waters (Greenwire, June 4, 2019).

Meredith Moore, fish conservation director for Ocean Conservancy, told the panel that Huffman’s bill would improve fishery management with its requirement for climate-ready fisheries.

“Climate change is already impacting fisheries and ocean ecosystems," she said. “The oceans are growing warmer and more acidic, circulation patterns are changing, fish populations are shifting their ranges and showing altered productivity, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.”

Critics said the bill would give NOAA too much power.

In addition, Shannon Carroll, associate director of public policy for Trident Seafoods, said that Huffman’s bill would “reduce management flexibility, upend region-specific solutions, create uncertainty, and impose additional costs and regulatory burdens on the management system and those who rely on it.”

Coit told lawmakers that several provisions of Huffman’s bill would help address challenges related to climate change and that the legislation would build on existing efforts at NOAA.

“We have seven assessments completed or underway that provide information on which species may be most vulnerable to changing climate,” she said.

But she told lawmakers the law has clearly worked, with 92 percent of all stocks no longer subject to overfishing as of Dec. 31, 2020, and 47 stocks rebuilt since 2000.

“The most important message I hope to communicate today is that the dynamic science-based management process under the Magnuson-Stevens Act provides the nation with a very successful fisheries management construct,” she said.

Other bills:
The panel also considered two other bills:

  • H.R. 59, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). It would amend the Magnuson-Stevens law to give “more flexibility” to fishery managers.
  • H.R. 5770, the “Forage Fish Conservation Act,” sponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), a bill that seeks to improve the management of forage fish.

By:  Rob Hotakainen
Source: E&E News