A rare, unified filibuster threat from Washington state’s senators is unlikely to derail a controversial bill that tightens restrictions on large commercial fishing fleets.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, wants Senate leaders to make reauthorizing the 20-year-old Magnuson Fisheries Act a priority. He says there are enough votes to block a threatened filibuster from Sens. Slade Gorton and Patty Murray.
Originally drafted by former Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson in 1976, the law was designed to keep foreign operators from catching too much fish off the Pacific Coast.
Many argue the law doesn’t work as intended. A coalition of more than 100 environmental groups, joined by scientists and fishing organizations, support a new version that seeks more protection for marine habitats, curbs over-fishing and reduces the amount of fish unintentionally caught and killed by larger vessels.
Suzanne Iudicello, spokeswoman for the Center for Marine Conservation, called the bill the only “bipartisan, pro-environment, pro-conservation legislation of the 104th Congress.”
The House overwhelmingly passed a similar bill last fall, and she urged the Senate to pass that version before the August recess.
Reauthorizing outdated industry practices is critical, the coalition contends.
“The Magnuson Act is not a silver bullet,” said Bill Mott, spokesman for the Marine Fish Conservation Network. But it’s an “important first step” in cleaning up the industry, he said.
Gorton and Murray both oppose two key changes. One temporarily suspends quotas limiting the amount a fisherman can catch; another gives preferential treatment to Alaskan fishermen in the Bering Sea. “The bill in its current form is harmful to thousands of men and women who work in Washington’s sizable fishing industry,” the two said in a rare joint statement.
Quotas have always been a sticking point in fishery management. Now they are prompting an unlikely alliance between Republican Gorton and Democrat Murray, while pitting Gorton against fellow Republican Stevens.
Originally established to regulate the amount of fish harvested each season, quotas are distributed to vessels based on the length of time they have been catching certain species of fish in a specified area.
Supporters say the quota system is safer and helps prevent free-for-all assaults on fish stocks. Opponents argue it’s harmful to smaller operators who cannot compete with large fleets.
Gorton and Murray also oppose a provision which grants Alaska natives 7-1/2 percent of the fish caught in the Bering Sea. This area has long been dominated by Washington-based fleets, and such a measure could be detrimental to them, the two argued.
The territorial fight between Washington and Alaska has been going on for years, Iudicello said.
But there is another reason for opposition to the bill, said Demming Cowles of the Western Alaskan Fisheries Development Association
“It is not the question of (quotas) … The underlying concern is the conservation provision that will have broad impact on the big boats that fish in the Bering Sea,” he said. “They will have to clean up their act if this bill passes.”