Huffman hosts New England listening session to discuss federal fisheries policy

U.S. Representative Jared Huffman (D-California) held the latest in a series of listening sessions online on 28 September in order to gauge stakeholder’s thoughts on fisheries management, particularly the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Huffman, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, has been hosting listening sessions featuring local stakeholder groups from various regions across the country. Originally intended to be in-person visits to parts of the U.S., all sessions have been taking place remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have obviously had to adapt to this COVID reality. I’m sorry that we can’t gather together in person in New England,” Huffman said to kick off the session. “We have decided that this conversation is too important to wait for the pandemic to go away.”

The main focus of the session was the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is facing an upcoming renewal in 2022. Huffman, and other congressional representatives present – including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts), U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) – were looking for information from stakeholders on what the act has been doing well, and what needs to change.

A key topic mentioned by congressional representatives, fishermen, and local organizations was the possibility of expanding NOAA's ability to perform scientific surveys, especially in light of climate change.

“I think that’s one of the most important considerations we have to make now,” Pingree said.

The issue, according to Kathy Mills of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, is that current fisheries management structures are not flexible enough to cope with changes. With warming waters and shifting species, such management practices could lead to some fisheries having trouble establishing effective quotas.

“Our current fishery management system is largely static,” she said. “As conditions change, the past is no longer a reliable analog.”

Strengthening NOAA’s budget, and expanding the research fleet for New England, were both key points the discussion as well. Currently, the region is largely served by one NOAA ship, the Henry Bigelow, which is rapidly aging. The vessel's age has already become in issue, as the New England Fisheries Science Center announced on 24 Septmeber that the fall ecosystem monitoring cruise, performed by the Bigelow, was cancelled due to the ship being required to undergo drydock maintenance in Galveston, Texas. 

Fishermen, Moulton added, bear the brunt of criticism regarding the status of fish stocks, when all they can work with is what scientists and management agencies give them.

“There’s a lot of blame thrown to the fishermen, when the fishermen are just doing what NOAA tells them to do,” Moulton said. “In so many ways, the fishing industries interests and the environmentalists interests are aligned, as long as you can agree on the science.”

While expanding the science dominated part of the discussion, the issue of protecting working waterfronts and the livelihoods of fishermen was also raised. Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Ben Martens said the fishing industry has little in the way of governmental assistance programs, in contrast to the agriculture sector

“We need to make sure fishermen are getting paid for what they’re catching,” Martens said. “There are real investments that we need to be making now in our fishermen and our fishing communities.”

Martens said ocean management is rapidly becoming about more than just fisheries management, with energy projects and other ocean development projects directly affecting the lives of fishermen, without much say on the fishermen’s part.

“The management of our oceans is getting more and more complicated, and fishermen are being left out of that conversation,” Martens said.

The goal of the listening sessions is to establish a draft of a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill by next Spring.

“When this law is implemented correctly, I think it is not only a critical part of our sustainable fisheries here in the United States, it has become a model for the rest of the world,” Huffman said.  

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons


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