WASHINGTON — A divided Congress and the unexpected death of an Alaska congressman appear to have derailed federal legislation meant to improve oversight and management of U.S. fisheries, especially in the face of climate change.

The House Natural Resources Committee passed a Democratic-sponsored bill last week to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for the first time since 2006.

While it’s possible the bill will receive a vote on the House floor before the end of the year, its chances of being taken up in the Senate, much less receiving the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster, is unlikely — at least in this Congress.

Tuna are unloaded onto a trailer at Pier 38 then brought into the fish auction.
Tuna are unloaded onto a trailer at Pier 38 in Honolulu then brought into the fish auction. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The bill, known as the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act, was co-authored by U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman of California and Ed Case of Hawaii, and is the culmination of more than two years of work, including a series of community listening sessions that began in 2019.

Huffman in particular traveled across the country to meet with stakeholders, including commercial fishermen, seafood processors, environmentalists and Indigenous leaders, to help develop a comprehensive approach to protecting ocean resources and ensure that all voices were heard before forging ahead with new legislation.

Starting Point For Negotiation

The bill addresses everything from improving data collection to better maintaining fish stocks and providing disaster relief, to reducing bycatch and increasing Indigenous representation on the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils.

Other provisions specifically target the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac, which is headquartered in Hawaii.

For instance, the bill would establish stricter requirements for ethics and lobbying by council members as well as require more oversight of Wespac spending after a Civil Beat investigation and subsequent federal audit found more than $1 million in questionable expenses.

“The oceans don’t care whether it’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ Congress, they’re still under threat.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case

The key element of the proposal, however, is climate resiliency for U.S. fisheries and how it will require fishery managers to adapt to a changing planet.

“Things have changed,” Huffman said in an interview. “We were not thinking about climate change the last time we reauthorized this law. We hear about shifting fish stocks, changing habitats, changing ocean conditions and habitat impacts that are putting stresses on fish populations. All of it points to a critical need to have climate ready fisheries.”

Although Huffman considers committee passage of the legislation to be a success, he said he’s also realistic about its prospects of becoming law.

Republicans are set to make gains in the House during November’s general election, which could give them the majority come next year. The Senate, too, might flip from Democratic control back to the GOP, which would only further limit Democrats’ ability to pass the current legislation.

Still, Huffman said, he hopes it can be a starting point for negotiation.

An Unexpected Death

The bill started to go sideways when Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska died in March.

Young was a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the original co-authors of the Magnuson-Stevens Act when it passed in 1976. He was also a principal architect of its last reauthorization in 2006.

Huffman said he looked to Young as a potential ally. Not only did Young represent a state that has one of the most lucrative fisheries in the U.S., but he also had the “stature and independence” to push back against some of his Republican colleagues who might want to sink the bill just to score a partisan victory, Huffman said.

California Congressman Jared Huffman, right, has been the driving force behind Democrats’ attempts to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2019

A bill with Young’s backing, Huffman said, might even have a shot at passing the Senate.

Young was not an official co-sponsor of the legislation, but Huffman said the congressman told him he was ready to forge ahead to get something passed this year.

“Just a few days before he died we had our final meeting and got to a handshake agreement on moving the bill forward together,” Huffman said. “Unfortunately, that’s where it ended.”

In the wake of Young’s death, Huffman issued a statement saying that the House Natural Resources Committee was pausing its work on the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill until a new representative from Alaska was elected.

Democrat Mary Peltola defeated Republican Sarah Palin in August to win a special election for Young’s seat, but by then it was too late to make meaningful headway on the legislation.

Republicans on the committee had lined up in opposition to the bill, and were bolstered by industry criticism that the new legislation would impose overly strict regulations that would result in lost jobs and higher prices for seafood.

On Sept. 20, one day before the Natural Resources Committee was set to hold a hearing on the bill, dozens of organizations from throughout the country, including the Hawaii Longline Association, signed a letter attacking the legislation, saying that if it were enacted it would “unquestionably throw the U.S. fishing and seafood sector into chaos.”

During the following day’s hearing a series of Republicans echoed those concerns and tried to paint the legislation as purely partisan. They also pointed out that Democrats didn’t have the numbers or the time to get the bill through the Senate.

“You can pass things through the majority in the House all day long,” said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana. “It’s not going to see the light of day in the Senate.”

This Wasn’t A ‘Backroom Jam Job’

Huffman has described Republican criticism that his bill is hyperpartisan as “laughably false.”

All one needs to do, he said, is consider the listening tour, which began in his home district in Arcata, California, before moving on to San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Baltimore, Honolulu, Miami and New England.

“The main reason I undertook this journey was to try to de-politicize this issue because it had become just another proxy for partisan fighting,” Huffman said. “The best thing I thought I could do was to reset the conversation. This wasn’t this backroom jam job where partisan combatants come up with the best way to own the libs or try to play some sort of gotcha game against the other party.”

Amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act is no easy task. Since it was passed it’s only been reauthorized twice, in 1996 and 2006. Both times were bipartisan.

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case has made ocean conservation a key component of his work in Washington. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

Gib Brogan, the fisheries campaign manager for Oceana, a nonprofit advocacy group seeking to protect the world’s oceans, said that every reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens has made the law stronger. The amendments were also bipartisan in nature so he doesn’t see a scenario where one party rams through an overhaul without at least some cross-aisle collaboration.

“Fisheries and oceans are not a partisan issue,” Brogan said. “This doesn’t follow party lines. It makes it interesting to work because you don’t always know where people’s ocean positions are, based on party alone.”

Coming to an agreement on Magnuson-Stevens can be like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

The needs and desires of fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are different from those in Alaska or Hawaii. The politicians, too, have their own alliances, whether it’s with environmental groups or the major economic players in the commercial fishing and seafood processing industry who help keep their constituents employed.

Success or failure in fisheries largely depends on more than just political affiliations.

Case acknowledged that he likely won’t see this particular bill become law, at least not in the near future.

In terms of Wespac, the Hawaii congressman said, efforts are already underway to hold the agency more accountable. The Office of Inspector General has conducted an audit and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing more oversight that, he said, was lacking in years past.

What happens next for Magnuson-Stevens, he said, will hinge upon November election results and whether the prevailing parties in the House and Senate are willing to move forward with what’s already been drafted. He also said it’s unfortunate that the future of fisheries depends on partisan politics but that doesn’t preclude progress.

“The oceans don’t care whether it’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ Congress; they’re still under threat,” Case said. “I think that this actually could pass in a halfway reasoned and focused Congress of either majority.”

“I don’t consider this in any way, shape or form to be a wasted effort,” he added.

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