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Senate subcommittee testimony by industry leaders supports Modern Fish Act

By Tim Hennagir

Support for a comprehensive marine fisheries reform bill in the U.S. House and Senate continues to gain positive momentum heading into the fall after a summer series of congressional hearings.

A coalition of boating and fishing industry leaders are focusing on the economic impact of recreational saltwater in their push to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Their goal is allowing for increased management flexibility for recreational fisheries.

In mid-July, recreational angling and boating stakeholders gathered on Capitol Hill for a Congressional Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy Luncheon along with coordinated congressional office visits. Event sponsors included American Sportfishing Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Marine Manufacturers Association, and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. 

The Modern Fish Act continued to gain positive momentum after a series of congressional hearings led by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. 

“The Modern Fish Act has bipartisan support because recreational fishing, one of America’s oldest and greatest pastimes, is being unnecessarily limited by policies designed decades ago to manage commercial fishing,” said Center for Sportfishing Policy President Jeff Angers. “The idea of keeping America’s public resources public is supported on both sides of the aisle.”

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held August hearings to examine the nation’s marine fishery laws and inform lawmakers on the interests of stakeholders in the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. 

The first hearing was Aug. 1. Senators heard from Chris Oliver, the recently appointed assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and Dr. John Quinn, chair of the Council Coordination Committee and Northeast Fishery Management Council. 

“The Aug. 1 hearing was the most positive hearing the recreational fishing sector has seen in years,” Angers said. The second hearing of the series took place in Kenai, Alaska, Aug. 23.

There, Sen. Sullivan heard from 14 fishing stakeholders from the recreational fishing industry, commercial fishing industry, subsistence sector and regulators. 

Ben Speciale, president of Yamaha Marine Group, Liz Ogilvie, American Sportfishing Association’s Keep America Fishing director, and Spud Woodward, Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division director, testified for recreational fishing, Angers said. 

The third committee hearing took place Sept. 12. It included a panel of recreational angling representatives featuring Phil Faulkner, president of NauticStar Boats, Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation Fisheries Program Director Chris Horton.

Faulkner, Donofrio and Horton all spoke about the challenges of MSA that are affecting the angling and boating community. Faulkner said 85 percent of the boats his company produces are built for recreational fishing, and more than 70 percent of boats purchased in the U.S. are bought solely for that purpose. 

“The saltwater recreational fishing economy reaches far beyond the U.S. coastline,” Faulkner said. Through license sales and excise taxes paid on fishing equipment and boat motor fuel, anglers and boaters contribute $1.3 billion annually to conservation and management, boating safety and infrastructure, and habitat restoration.

The Modern Fish Act would bring much needed modernization to the way recreational fishing is managed in federal waters, Faulkner said.

“What our industry and the recreational fishing community needs now is action,” Donofrio said. “Our industry has been losing businesses and jobs at an alarming rate as a direct result of failed management measures forced upon the recreational sector due to MSA.” 

Recreational saltwater anglers are an important and significant component of the nation’s marine fisheries, Horton told committee members. According to the 2015 NOAA survey, there were 9 million saltwater anglers who took nearly 61 million fishing related trips and who contributed $63 billion in sales impacts to our economy - resulting in 440,000 full- and part-time jobs in that year alone, Horton said.

Since its original passage in 1976, the MSA has made progress in ending overfishing, rebuilding depleted fish stocks, protecting essential fish habitat and a variety of other improvements to the nation’s marine resources, Horton testified.

However, he added the MSA remains primarily a model for commercial fisheries management and fails to adequately address the significant socioeconomic, cultural and conservation values of recreational fishing, as well as recognize that these are two distinct activities.

“We believe the Modern Fish Act provides the necessary adjustments to achieve these goals,” Horton said. “It will not weaken the conservation principals of the law, nor does it pit recreational anglers against commercial fishermen.” The act would simply allow the law governing U.S. fisheries management to provide federal managers and regional councils with the necessary tools to manage marine recreational fisheries more appropriately and with the same emphasis as commercial fisheries, Horton said.

Angers said since the Modern Fish Act was introduced in both chambers the bills have continued to receive bipartisan support, adding 21 co-sponsors, including Congressmen Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Jody Hice (R-Ga.), and Joe Barton (R-Texas), as well as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Given the importance of the Modern Fish Act to the fishing and boating community, the Congressional Boating Caucus has been active on the Modern Fish Act with five Senators and 11 House members co-signing, Angers said. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Congressman Congressman Graves (R-La.), Graves (R-La.), both Boating Caucus members, introduced the bill.

“We are aware that the government’s budget and hurricane relief will consume much of the oxygen in September,” Angers said. “However, we are optimistic that progress on comprehensive marine fisheries reform will continue.”

The recreational fishing and boating community will continue to apply the pressure necessary to keep legislative ball rolling, he said. 

“Passing this bill will be a legislative process, not a single legislative event,” Angers added. “Continued manufacturer and angler involvement will be required to get across the finish line this Congress.”

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