Natural Resources Panel Partisanship Imperils Fisheries Bill

Divides on the House committee are again complicating the path forward for key legislation.

Salmon churn the water at Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc., in Juneau, Alaska, in August.
AP Photo/Becky Bohrer
Brian Dabbs
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Brian Dabbs
Dec. 14, 2017, 8 p.m.

An abrupt breakdown in negotiations on overhauling fishery regulations is adding fuel to partisan strains on the House Natural Resources Committee—and triggering some heartburn for the senator who may have to clean up the mess.

The panel passed fishery legislation this week along party lines, and the main sponsor, Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, says the bill will give local management councils more autonomy to rebuild fish stocks.

But detractors say the legislation degrades environmental protections for fish off U.S. shores and threatens a revival of overfishing and depleted species. The legislation would amend the bedrock Magnuson–Stevens Act, which passed into law in 1976 with Young as one of the original cosponsors.

Young, now the longest-serving House member, pledged in recent months to work with Democrats to strike a deal on an overhaul. Congress has been trying to renew the statute since its expiration in 2013, but similar efforts have fallen victim to partisanship. The law is still administered, however, because Congress annually provides funding.

The latest negotiations collapsed without warning around the beginning of the month, according to Democrats and aides.

“We were making progress, and I was really quite hopeful that we were going to be able to get this done and do what we should have done in the past couple Congresses,” Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman said. “We were blindsided by forcing the markup. … It was boiling down to a single issue, and that is annual catch limits and the rebuilding framework.”

Huffman and a Democratic aide said the markup, which was announced only five days before the amendment process began, came at the behest of Chairman Rob Bishop. Young was also caught off-guard, those Democrats said.

But Young, in interviews with National Journal, criticized Democrats for relentlessly demanding new concessions.

“Negotiations are a two-way street. I gave up eight things that they wanted, and they kept wanting something more,” Young said shortly after the Wednesday markup. “I want flexibility more than anything else. They don’t want flexibility.” Young said he removed provisions on the Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act during negotiations. Those provisions are now restored following the collapse of negotiations.

Bishop’s staff backed that portrayal of Democratic intransigence.

“Republican members made every effort to accommodate the minority and build consensus in good faith,” a spokeswoman for the committee said. “When it became clear Democrats were unwilling to compromise, it was time to move forward.”

The American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and other groups support the legislation in its current form.

“Antiquated federal policies are unnecessarily limiting the public’s access to our nation’s abundant natural resources,” those groups said in a letter the day of the markup announcement.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says overfished waters and those at risk for overfishing have plummeted in the past two decades, though overfishing has slightly increased since last year, the agency says.

More than 1.6 million Americans are employed in the commercial and recreational fishing and seafood industries, the agency says, adding that those sectors of the economy contribute nearly $100 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.

A spokeswoman for House GOP leadership didn’t respond to a request for comment on the prospects for a floor vote.

The stalled legislation is the latest symptom of partisan unrest at the Natural Resources Committee. In recent months, Bishop has muscled through a sportsmen’s package with controversial deregulation of gun silencers and body-armor-piercing ammunition, an onshore and offshore bill to promote fossil-fuel development, and a forest-management measure aimed at loosening environmental regulations.

On the fisheries bill, senators are intent on moving legislation, and House reconciliation of differences would have dramatically increased the prospect of success.

“I think bipartisan support makes it much, much more likely to pass,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, another Alaskan who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on fisheries. “I thought there was going to be some Democratic support.” Sullivan is vowing to work closely with Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the subpanel.

A House Democratic staffer, requesting anonymity to assess the bill’s chances, was skeptical that it could make it to the president’s desk.

“I have no confidence that will happen,” said the committee staffer, who was directly involved in the negotiations. “What they marked up and I imagine what they’re going to take to the floor is not something that the Senate is going to seriously consider. So, I think the only hope for something like that is, at this point now, for the Senate to put together its own bill, and I just don’t know, with everything else going on over there, if they’re going to have the bandwidth.”

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