WASHINGTON (AP) — Defying a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House on Monday approved a bill to give regional fisheries managers more power to set local fishing levels in federal waters.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would remove a 10-year timeframe for rebuilding depleted fish stocks and allow fisheries managers to consider the economic needs of fishing communities in setting annual catch limits.
Republicans said the bill would added needed "flexibility" to the fisheries law while still protecting against overfishing. Democrats said it would roll back an important requirement that has ensured the recovery of many fish populations.
The House approved the bill, 225-152.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the vote "a win for the consumer, a win for the industry that puts food on our tables and restaurants, a win for the recreational fisherman, a win for better and more transparent science and a win for the American taxpayers."
The bill would reauthorize the four-decade-old Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the top law regulating fishing in U.S. oceans, and give regional fisheries managers greater flexibility to shift catch totals as ocean conditions and science change.
Young said the bill was "written for fish and communities — not interest groups" and would ensure that "the needs of our fisheries resources are balanced with the needs of our fishermen and coastal communities."
Young said the provision allowing local managers to consider the economic needs of fishing communities in setting catch limits was crucial to the health of fishing communities from New England to the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska. The bill also would revise the fishing law to more closely reflect the current science, management techniques and knowledge of local fishermen and regional management councils, Young said.
President Barack Obama and other Democrats objected to the bill, saying it could lead to overfishing and roll back successful efforts to rebuild some stocks depleted by overfishing.
Obama said in a May 19 statement that the House bill would "undermine the use of science-based actions to end and prevent overfishing" and would "interfere with the tremendous success achieved in rebuilding overfished fisheries by setting rebuilding targets that are not based on sound, credible science, and that unnecessarily extend the time to rebuild fisheries."
A 2013 report by the independent National Research Council found that federal efforts to rebuild depleted fish populations have largely been successful, but said pressure to overfish some species remains high and some fish stocks have not rebounded as quickly as projected.
Forty-three percent of fish stocks identified as being overfished were rebuilt or showed good progress toward rebuilding within 10 years, the time limit required by the Magnuson-Stevens law, the report said. Another 31 percent were on track to rebuild if sharply reduced fishing levels remain in place, the report said.
More than a quarter of overfished stocks continued to be overfished, due to ineffective enforcement and errors in fish stock estimates that led officials to set catch limits that were too high, the report said.
The report said the 10-year timeline to rebuild fisheries can help ensure that rebuilding occurs at a reasonable pace, but said it also can create inefficiencies that could in turn cause economic hardship.
New England fishermen and some members of Congress in the region have blamed the 10-year rebuilding requirement in part for drastic cuts in fishing for cod, haddock and other species.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, opposed the House bill, saying it would allow some fishermen to catch more fish in the short term but have "devastating long-term consequences." Science-based regulations have resulted in species such as haddock and pollock "beginning to make a comeback," she said.
"Now is not the time to abandon these efforts," Pingree said. "The only way to guarantee healthy fishing communities over the long term is to rebuild the fish stocks using science-based methods."
The bill would amend and reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens law through 2019, at an annual spending level of nearly $400 million.
The measure now goes to the Senate.