Fishing groups are divided over what a proposed update to the nation’s marine fishery management law would mean for Maine.

Some groups worried the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization approved Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives would hurt efforts to rebuild Maine’s cod, haddock and scallop fisheries, while others say giving regional councils flexibility to decide what kinds of science they will use to guide their decisions could help rebounding fisheries and fishermen.

Lobster dealers will be happy with at least one part of this reauthorization bill – an amendment submitted by Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, that would help pave the way for lower federal inspection fees, and wait times, on lobster sales to Europe, which despite China’s growing demand still accounted for 31 percent of U.S. lobster shipments abroad in 2017.

This would give lobster dealers a break at a difficult time for the industry, which is facing new trade barriers in Europe. European nations can buy lobster for less from Canada because of a new trade deal and a weak Canadian dollar. Chinese buyers are also turning to Canadian lobster to avoid steep new Chinese import tariffs on U.S. lobster levied as part of the U.S.-China trade war.

The amendment calls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees federal fisheries, to produce a list of all fees it charges to bring a Maine lobster to market. In a floor speech, Poliquin told fellow lawmakers they should expect him to return, upon completion of the study, to seek repeal of what he fears might be a boat full of unnecessary fees.

“I fear there are fees – federal, state and maybe local fees – that are charged to get that critter from the bottom of a cold Maine ocean to the plate of hungry folks around the world,” he said. “We need to make sure the fees are lower, the regulations are fewer, the taxes are lower because that helps them grow their business, hire more people and pay them more, and lead better lives with fatter paychecks.”

The Poliquin-Pingree amendment was unanimously added to the larger reauthorization bill. The House adopted the reauthorization bill, introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in a 222-193 vote, mostly along party lines. It must still be approved by the Senate. Poliquin voted yes, but Pingree voted against the bill even though she co-sponsored the lobster fee study amendment.

“It weakens rebuilding requirements, creates loopholes in some conservation efforts, and has the effect of decreasing the accountability that has been put in place to prevent overfishing,” Pingree said during her testimony. “(It) undoes efforts that have been proven to work, while failing to address some significant challenges in our fisheries. It’s a lost opportunity.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was initially adopted in 1976 to help revive the commercial fishing industry, and the fishing stocks they depend on, after years of decline, doing things like barring foreign fishing vessels from U.S. waters, creating regional councils to make fishing rules and establishing the first set of national fishing standards.

Reauthorizations beefed up the law to prevent overfishing by setting annual catch limits, rebuild overfished stocks by creating timelines for improvements and cut down on bycatch, or accidental catches of one species while fishing for another. The 2006 reauthorization of the act required all management decisions to be based on the best available science.

The law was up for review again in 2016, but efforts have stalled as interest groups square off over its future and how science fits into it. The House reauthorization of the bill removes the requirement to attempt to rebuild depleted stocks within 10 years of being declared overfished and gives the regional councils the ability to set annual catch limits with more flexibility, taking non-scientific factors into consideration.

That kind of flexibility could be a good thing for Maine fishermen, and their rebounding fish stocks, as long as it is not exploited to try to eliminate science-based decision-making, said Carla Guenther, the senior scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. For example, it would open the door for the regional fishing council to use the center’s groundfish survey.

In 2010, the center teamed up with the University of Maine and local fishermen to launch the Sentinel Survey, which uses longline and jig-hook gear to gather local, fine-tuned data about groundfish like Atlantic cod and Atlantic halibut in areas that aren’t well sampled by existing monitoring programs. But the survey is still too new to fit the “best available science” definition, she said.

While flexibility is good, hard-and-fast safeguards like stock rebuilding deadlines keep regulatory bodies focused on the prize, which is rebuilding the fisheries that fishermen depend on, and help them make the hard management decisions that protect fisheries for future generations, said Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

Those deadlines have helped rebuild some of Maine’s most vulnerable stocks, like scallops and haddock, Martens said.

“Without fish in the ocean, we don’t have fishermen,” Martens said. “Our goal as an organization is to always make sure there are fish in the ocean next year, and the year after, building toward a better future. We need those timelines. Without targets, there’s nothing to drive change and action. In Maine, we’ve seen rebounds because of those targets. It gets much harder without them.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

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