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Congressional Testimony on HR 3331, HR 3390 and HR 3516 and the Proposed Rule by NMFS on time and area closures in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to pelagic longline fishing

February 8, 2000

Three Longline Bills Posted In Congress-

NMFS Proposes Unilateral Closures Without Buyouts And Recreational Permits

by Gary Caputi

The rush to post bills aimed at curbing longlining reached a fever pitch with a total of three bills submitted in the last few weeks. They vary in their ability to reduce longlining effort, reduce bycatch and provide real conservation benefits. They also vary by who gets saddled with shouldering the financial burden for the actions they propose.

The Senate bill sponsored by Senator John Breaux (LA) and Olympia Snow (ME), both champions of commercial fishing, contains the controversial measures negotiated between the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), the Billfish Foundation (TBF), the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and the longliners lobbyists from the Blue Water Fisherman’s Association (BWFA). It includes extensive area closures in the Gulf of Mexico and the south Atlantic and a controversial "voluntary" buyout of longline vessels with the financial burden to be shouldered by taxpayers; seafood consumers in the form of a tariff on all swordfish sold; and recreational fishermen in the form of a new pelagic fishing permit for anyone venturing into the closed areas. It contains no reduction in quota or overall fishing effort on the longliners that remain in the fishery. The remaining boats, which comprise about 75% of the existing fleet if the buyout indeed removes 60 boats, will be the beneficiaries of greatly reduced competition and increased quota share as a result. It’s a great deal for them. The government is going to buy out a big chunk of their competition, have taxpayers, consumer and recreational fishermen foot the bill to do it, and they get a greater share of the existing quota which is not reduced by the legislation. In effect, the government and you and I are going to make the remaining boats in the longline industry more profitable and, not surprisingly, politically powerful. And the bill will put a four-year moratorium on any additional measures, should those in the bill fail to provide sufficient conservation benefits.

The second bill, sponsored by Congressman James Saxton (NJ), chairman of the House Committee on Sustainable Fisheries, Oceans and Wildlife, mirrors the Breaux/Snow bill, but it draws a correlation in quota reduction for each boat purchased through the buyout. However, the quota reduction only comes into play for boats fishing in the Mid-Atlantic Bight area. The concern is that the Breaux/Snow bill, while having some conservation benefits in the Gulf and South Atlantic, will create a massive shift in fishing effort from the closed areas to the canyons and Gulf Stream in the Mid-Atlantic and further north into New England. This effort shift is all but guaranteed by the legislation because the boats that will "volunteer" for the buyout money will most certainly be the least profitable and least mobile in the fleet. Boats that are only marginally in business at this point in time, if not already sitting idly at the dock. The remaining 75% of the fleet will consist of larger, more modern vessels capable of traveling great distances or shifting their base of operations into the mid-Atlantic region. They will be increasing operations in an area of the greatest concentration of recreational fishing boats, the states between North Carolina and New York, where grounds conflicts are sure to arise. In addition, the effort shift will place far greater pressure in areas where seasonal concentrations of white marlin are still found in U.S. waters. White marlin is the most endangered and over-fished of the billfish species and is in that precarious state due to longline bycatch over the past twenty plus years.

The third bill, introduced by Congressman (SC) calls for the complete session of longlining in all U.S. EEZ waters. This is the strongest bill and offers the greatest conservation benefit, yet it is given little chance of advancing through the house with such powerhouse senior congressmen and senators promoting the far weaker bills. This is unfortunate.

With all these legislative efforts underway, the National Marine Fisheries Service, in an announcement this week, detailed specifications for a proposed rule that would institute major time and area closures in the south Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico through the regulatory power granted them by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The use of time and area closures to reduce bycatch of juvenile swordfish and billfish was the highlight of the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan unveiled by NMFS last year after two years of development time. The time and area closures portion of the FMP was postponed while NMFS could further study longline logbooks to determine where such areas should be located to be effective. The time and area closure portion of the FMP was strongly supported by none other than the Billfish Foundation, which has now shifted it support to a legislative approach with a costly buyout instead of NMFS regulation.

After completely their review, and with the added pressure of a lawsuit by the National Coalition for Marine Conservation holding their feet to the fire to do implement the closures called for in the FMP, here is what NMFS included in their proposed rule. A total closure of the south Atlantic coastal region from South Carolina through the Straights of Florida year-round; and a seasonal closure of the entire western Gulf of Mexico from the Mexican border through Louisiana from March 1 through September 30. It would close these areas to all longlining including targeting dolphinfish and wahoo. NMFS is requesting public comment on the closure areas and timing and is scheduling public hearings for January and February. The comment deadline is February 11, 2000. Once comments are reviewed, the final rule will be developed and implementation could be in place for the 2001-fishing year.

The beauty of accomplishing the time and area closures through NMFS regulation, actually the correct venue for such management measures, is that no buyout is necessary and the taxpayer and recreational fishermen. They are not obligated to pay for the sins of the longline industry that has decimate these fisheries causing great disruptions to the recreational fisheries as well. Further, provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act allow the longline industry to buyout boats effected by the closure through a special, low interest government loan program that would not burden taxpayers and recreational fishermen and that would be paid back through the sale of fish products caught by the remaining boats. No legislative buyout is necessary, period!

The entire concept of boat buyouts to reduce fleet size, and, ostensibly, fishing effort is highly questionable when one looks at what has happened in New England in the past few years. The government has spent over $23 million to purchase 79 commercial trawlers, $7 million in so-called disaster relief for remaining fishermen who can’t still can’t fish, and now an additional $15 million is being spend on questionable scientific research to be conducted by idle commercial fishing vessels. With over 45 million in taxpayer dollars spent already, the fisheries off New England are still in terrible shape and little, if any, reduction in fishing effort has been realized. Whose to say the results of a longliner buyout, which is actually a subsidy for the remaining boats in the fleet as well, will have any better results.

The CCA just released comments condemning NMFS for doing its job by publishing the proposed rule for time and area closures. This was not unexpected. It appears that CCA is more concerned with taking credit for weak legislation than they are in seeing the fishery management system in place do its job and regulate the fisheries they were charged with conserving. We expect the next salvo will come from TBF, railing against the very fishery management plan they worked to help develop with NMFS. The bottom line is, the NMFS proposed rule accomplish the time and area closures through the proper channels. It closes areas that longline industry representatives involved in the development of the HMS-FMP agreed had to be closed, but stops short of spending millions of dollars to compensate longliners for their economic loss, even though they are the cause of that loss in the first place. In the case of Senators Breaux and Snow, any legislation that gets commercial fishermen off the hook is fine by them and I am not surprised in the least that they volunteered to be the political champions of the "big deal". It’s a real win/win for the longline industry.

It’s time to take a step back and look at the motives of all the groups involved and the benefits and downside of each approach being put forward. Then we should put all our heads together and do what is best for the resource without taking punitive action against the recreational fishermen who is being used as a pawn in this entire process. The largest number of recreational groups have agreed that the proper venue for time and area closures is through the regulatory body charged by law with doing it...the National Marine Fisheries Service. The mechanism already exists in the law and in the HMS-FMP. While NMFS has a less than stellar track record in the past, the agency appears poised to do the right thing without congress getting in the way.


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