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Maine Fishing Industry Weighs In on Magnuson-Stevens Act Revisions
06/17/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

The law that underpins federal fishing policy in the U.S. is currently in the process of being revised by Congress. The Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed in 1976 with the aim of protecting U.S. federal waters from foreign competition. The goal has been to try and improve the sustainable management of fisheries through the introduction of science-based catch limits. Tom Porter takes a look at what revisions Maine fishermen and scientists want to see from Washington.

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Trawler at Portland Fish Pier

"The idea of having science-based catch limits is really at the heart of what the act is trying to accomplish," says Jud Crawford, of the Pew Charitable Trust's Northeast Fisheries Program.

Crawford says you cannot harvest a wild animal population without knowing how much needs to be left intact to replenish the numbers, and that's what the Magnuson-Stevens Act has done.

"The Act has been successful," he says. "It has made a series of changes through the reauthorizations that have made it increasingly effective."

One man who can remember life as a commercial fisherman before Magnuson is Jim Odlin. From offices on Portland's fish pier, Odlin owns and operates a number of groundfishing vessels - both in Maine and in Massachusetts. As a teenager back in the 1970s, he fished regularly in federal waters.

"I have distinct memories - with my first fishing boat I was around 18, 19 - of running through a fleet going towards Brown's Bank, and there was a hundred foreign ships," Odlin says, "so many foreign ships that it lit the sky up like you were going into Boston."

These ships - many of them Russian - hauled everything out the ocean that they could, says Odlin. So when Congress passed Magnuson-Stevens, and effectively kicked out the foreigners, fishermen like him were relieved.

But 27 years later, Odlin says, the New England groundfish fleet has shrunk, from about 1,200 active vessels down to less than 400, only about 10 percent of which are in Maine. Entire fishing ports, he says, have effectively disappeared.

"Rockland used to be a major fishing port, it's no longer, Boothbay Harbor, Portland's on its way," he says. "So, you know, if you look at it in that context, I would question how successful it's been."

Odlin - who served as a member of the New England Fishery Management Council for nine years - is skeptical of some of the science behind catch limits, and says Magnuson-Stevens has been too hard on the industry.

Overfishing, he says, is no longer the threat it was - he points out that there are haddock on George's bank now dying of old age, rather than being fished. Odlin says a re-authorization of the act should recognize this and relax the tight restrictions on groundfishing.

Many experts want to see the act become more nuanced as it gets revised - more sensitive to local environmental needs.
"For example, one little bay in Gouldsboro Bay has genetically distinct scallops," says Robin Alden, director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, a non-profit dedicated to securing a future for Maine's Downeast fishing communities.

Alden regards Magnuson as, essentially, a failure in that it failed to put a stop to overfishing. Federal policy at the moment, she says, is too "one size fits all."

"The act puts the federal government in the position of having to assert that it knows precisely what should be done," Alden says, "when, in fact, what we should be doing is an adaptive learning process, because no one knows what's happening the ocean."

One complicating factor is climate change.

"The Gulf of Maine and the Arctic portion of Alaska are the two areas that are really feeling the impacts of climate change," says John Annala, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Annala also sits on the Science and Statistical Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council.

Annala says that last year, water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine were five to six degrees above normal, which has never been observed before. And that has meant the emergence of new types of fish in the Gulf, such as black sea bass and squid.

Annala feels the Magnuson-Stevens Act has been highly effective in improving the sustainability of fish stocks. But he says there are areas that do need improvement: They include incorporating the impact of environmental change into fisheries management.

Also, he says the act has not done enough to ensure the viability of fishing communities, especially in states like Maine, where many areas are highly dependent on the industry.

"One way of doing it is to work with the industry to try and improve their economic return through reducing fuel costs by improving efficiency of vessels and gear, improving the chain of marketing, to add value to the products," Annala says.

Congress has three-and-a-half months to act. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is set to expire at the end of September.

File photo:  Tom Porter


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