NMFS’ Oliver Testifies Before Senate Subcommittee on Magnuson-Stevens Act

On August 1, the Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard held the first of a series of hearings on the successes and challenges of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act (MSA). Chris Oliver, the Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) testified before the subcommittee in support of greater management flexibility in the law for both commercial and recreational fisheries.

Oliver praised the MSA for effectively ending overfishing and rebuilding domestic fish stocks but noted that flexibility applying accountability measures, annual catch limits (ACLs) and rebuilding timelines could address many of the challenges that have been raised in re-authorization discussions. He explained that “managing under ACLs and associated accountability measures has been a major change and a new challenge for many fisheries” particularly in recreational fisheries where harvest data can be difficult to collect or isn’t quickly reported or where robust stock assessments don’t exist or management goals may differ fundamentally from commercial fisheries. He noted that in his personal experience, additional tools in the toolbox would be helpful.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) explored the challenges of managing recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico under the existing law.  Anglers argue that NOAA’s Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) cannot provide data at the level of timeliness and accuracy needed for managing effort for quota-based ACLs. MRIP relies on mail surveys to track catch data. In response, the Gulf Coast states have developed data collection surveys that rely on more frequent in-season surveys and have made other data-collection improvements to track effort. Oliver touted the pending baseline benchmark for red snapper as an opportunity to make some headway on this issue and acknowledged the “less than perfect satisfaction with stock assessments” and the inability “through real time accounting to know precisely what’s coming out of the water.” When asked about opportunities to use new technology employed by the Gulf Coast states like smart phone technology to better track harvest data, he noted that NMFS is prioritizing and expediting certification of state data programs to be able to use these tools.

Oliver highlighted the 2018 National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit scheduled for March 28-29, 2018 in the D.C. area as an opportunity to “chart a course for future success.” The event, sponsored by NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is an effort to engage recreational fisheries constituents from around the nation to identify commonly held concerns, goals, objectives, and priorities, which in the past has served as the basis for the NOAA Fisheries National Action Agenda, subsequent Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy, and National and Regional Implementation Plans.

A number of other issues were raised that impact fisheries across the country including concerns about ocean acidification, movement of fish stocks due to warming waters, the ability of the regional councils to track movement, and concerns over available harvest being left in the water due to bycatch restrictions and regulatory hurdles. Oliver used West Coast ground fish to highlight how regulations and bycatch restrictions are creating a scenario where fishermen must leave significant portions of available harvest in the water. ​For example, fishermen might be required to discard marketable fish because they are under-sized, caught unintentionally, or caught out of season. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) highlighted the challenges of fish stock movement for the New England fishing industry and characterized the current system as profoundly unfair. Catch limits are often based on where fish have been most abundant in the past, but outdated assessments have not kept up with stock movement leaving fishermen from southern states on the east coast with a larger share of the catch. Blumenthal called for “sweeping, immediate and radical change” to the MSA to accommodate the New England fishing industry.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Mr. Oliver to speak to opportunities to address the seafood trade imbalance with foreign importers. Echoing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ interest in this expansion, Oliver indicated that the agency is making “marine aquaculture development a renewed priority” and is working towards operational and budgetary incentives to make inroads on the seafood deficit through aquaculture production.  He cautioned that regulatory and permitting issues are hurdles to expansion.

In early 2016, NOAA finalized a regulation that allows for coordinated permitting for offshore finfish aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. The new rule authorizes NOAA Fisheries to issue permits to grow species such as Red Drum, Cobia, and Almaco Jack in federal waters in the Gulf for an initial 10-year period with an optional 5-year renewal. In addition to a NOAA permit, farming fish in federal waters also requires permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) who has an interest in developing aquaculture legislation, questioned Oliver about the reasons for the lack of permit applications. Oliver committed to provide a response for the record. Fishing and public interest groups filed suit challenging the rule on the grounds that NOAA exceeded its authority to regulate fishing under MSA by including offshore aquaculture as "fishing" activity.  Some believe that investors are hesitant to fund these endeavors in the face of opposition from environmentalists and fishermen, while others believe investment is stymied due to regulatory and leasing hurdles.

Sen. Blumenthal expressed frustration about the Administration’s proposed Fiscal year 2018 budget cuts that impact NOAA programming including Sea Grant and federal research efforts to expand aquaculture, and asked Oliver to justify them.  Oliver noted that he was not in a position to comment extensively, but cautioned that there could be a need to refocus limited monetary and staff resources on core, mission critical activities such as basic stock assessments and catch accounting.

Oliver’s written testimony is available for review here.