Fishing rule gives regional councils more flexibility on catch limits

WASHINGTON – Recreation anglers could see more fishing opportunities under a new rule issued by the Obama administration Thursday that gives regional management councils more flexibility in setting catch limits.

The rule, already under fire from environmental groups in a rare conflict with the administration, could help mollify the recreational fishing industry and its Republican allies in Congress. They've criticized the administration for not relaxing restrictions on catches, given that many fish stocks have rebounded dramatically over the past few years.

Officials with the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the change, years in the making, strikes an appropriate balance between current law, which has helped rescue dozens of once over-fished stocks, and the needs of the economically vital recreational and commercial industry.

Re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act a decade ago is credited with helping to rebuild 40 endangered stocks since 2000. Eight stocks came off the "overfishing" list in 2015, including greater amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico, thorny skate in the Gulf of Maine and hogfish in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

“We certainly didn’t want to backtrack on any of the important sustainability measures that we had put in place,” Samuel Rauch, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at NOAA's fisheries division, told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

Some environmental groups oppose the change, saying that giving more “flexibility” to the eight regional councils that set catch limits in federal waters could soften protections that have worked well.

“Unfortunately, the new rules weaken the foundations of U.S. sustainable fisheries management,” said Meredith Moore, director of the fish conservation program atOcean Conservancy. “By allowing risky management decisions that leave stocks at low levels, we leave fish populations and fishing communities vulnerable."

The councils, which include state officials, environmental activists and industry representatives, determine catch limits on dozens of stocks, including cod off New England, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and salmon in the Pacific.

They are directed to follow science-driven guidelines — first issued in early 2009 in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration — that are enforced through the "National Standard 1" regulation.

The regulation has helped once-depleted fish stocks rebound, but the councils have drawn resentment from most recreational and some commercial fishermen, who have suffered under catch limits they view as overprotective. They have pressured the administration and lawmakers to loosen them.

Environmental groups, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, said they were pleased the administration made changes to the proposed rule over the summer in response to thousands of comments opposing the original language. But they continue to harbor reservations about the finished product.

“Our initial analysis suggests that overall, this a step backwards from the current rule, especially in ensuring (fish) populations are rebuilt from unsustainably low levels,” said Ted Morton, director of U.S. Oceans at Pew.

Among other things, environmentalists are unhappy with changes that allow the regional councils to consider data over longer periods in deciding appropriate catch limits. They worry that could give councils wiggle room to leave vulnerable stocks open to future depletion.

But Alan Risenhoover, director of NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries, said the new rule won’t permit such a retreat because councils would have to scientifically justify and explain how any easing of limits would not harm stocks.

Preventing such overfishing is the “controlling statutory requirement,” he told reporters.


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