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For nearly a decade Rhode Island has been trying to obtain a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed continued those efforts this week when Rhode Island was added to the list of seven states with voting representation on the MAFMC in the latest version of the Senate Commerce Committeeâs draft Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization bill.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, originally enacted in 1976, is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. The act expired last September and both the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee are currently drafting separate proposals to update the law.
Robert Ballou, assistant to the director at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, explained that the Magnuson-Stevens Act regulates fisheries in federal waters, which are waters off the U.S. coast between 3 miles and 200 miles. Waters within 3 miles of the coast are controlled by states.
âIt really changed and initiated the modern era of fisheries management,â Ballou said by phone Thursday.
He said that the act established regional fishery management councils, including the New England Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Rhode Island has a seat on the New England Fishery Management Council, along with Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The MAFMC includes representatives from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
While Rhode Islandâs membership on the New England Fishery Management Council remains important, Ballou said it has become increasingly important for Rhode Island to have representation on the MAFMC.
âItâs not as if we donât have an interest in the species managed by the New England Council,â he said.
Those species include ground fish, such as cod and yellow tail flounder.
âTheyâre all very important to Rhode Island,â Ballou said. âWe have always had and perhaps historically larger components of our fishery involved ground fish, so perhaps the fit might have been a little bit better back in the â70s and â80s.â
He continued, explaining why Rhode Island needs a seat on the MAFMC. âOver time, the way our industry, our fishery has developed and the way the resource and the stock is distributed, is based on where the fish migrate, where are they located and theyâre located off southern New England with direct proximity to Rhode Island. There has been a gradual shift over time and a gradual shift of the distribution of some of these stocks northward and weâve become increasingly dependent on these species. There has been a transition in terms of what are the species most important to Rhode Island and how they fit in terms of the management regime or structure established under the Magnuson Act.â
Now, Ballou said of Rhode Islandâs 65 million pounds in average annual commercial landings, 41 million pounds, or about 63 percent, involve species managed by the MAFMC. That equates to about $36.5 million of squid, scup, summer flounder, black sea bass, butterfish and mackerel.
Recreational fishing interests also include species managed by the MAFMC.
âIt just so happens that the majority of the fish that are harvested by commercial and recreational fishermen from Rhode Island and that are being landed in Rhode Island involves species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Council, on which Rhode Island does not yet have a seat. Hopefully that will change with the recent proposal that has been introduced in the Senate.â
According to Sen. Reedâs office, the catch of Rhode Islandâs commercial fishermen represents a significant portion of commercial landings of the mid-Atlantic fishery, and is greater than most states represented on the MAFMC. However, without representation on the council, Rhode Island canât fully participate in the development of fishery management plans for mid-Atlantic stocks, many of which are crucial to Rhode Islandâs seafood economy.
Ballou said representation for Rhode Island on the MAFMC is âlong over due.â
âItâs an issue that has resonated very loudly and very strongly throughout Rhode Island,â he said. âSenator Reed and the rest of the Congressional delegation have been very responsive in regard to making the change. Itâs an important issue for us â no other issue is more important, although there are many others weâre interested in.â
Sen. Reed first introduced the Rhode Island Fishermenâs Fairness Act on Oct. 6, 2005 to add Rhode Island to the list of states with voting representation on the MAFMC and has been working since to obtain a seat for the Ocean State.
Still, Richard Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermenâs Alliance, says itâs not enough.
âThe state of Pennsylvania has a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Council and I donât have to tell you where Pennsylvania is in relationship to the ocean,â Fuka said by phone Thursday. âSenator Reed is a senior senator in Washington and for some reason he has run into a dead end with his fellow Democrats in New Jersey because he continues to blame New Jersey for his failure to pass the Fairness Act. For the life of me, I donât understand why he canât get the Fairness Act passed, and why he canât get us a seat.â
Of Reedâs efforts to get Rhode Island a seat on the MAFMC, Fuka said Reed should have âdelivered on it the first time around.â
âWeâre still swinging in the breeze here with no seat on the Mid-Atlantic,â he said. âYou would think that something that means so much to Rhode Island would be an easy task for him to achieve, him being there for so long, but it hasnât worked out for him at all. This is probably the most important thing Jack Reed could ever do for the fishing community.â
Ballou attributes the delay to the fact that the Magnuson-Stevens Act only comes up for reauthorization about every 10 years.
âWhile awaiting for the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act to commence, Senator Reed has pushed hard for the Fishermenâs Fairness Act,â Ballou said. âItâs very hard; Congress typically doesnât take up issues like this until the act as a whole comes up for reauthorization and the door is opened and various initiatives are considered. This is the piece thatâs probably the most important to Rhode Island. I think thatâs really the key, given the focus here, thanks to Senator Reedâs efforts to keep this issue on the front burner, the Senate committee has seen fit to incorporate the proposal into the Senate bill.â
Reedâs Fishermenâs Fairness Act would add two places for Rhode Island representation to the 21-member council. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce, under recommendation from Rhode Islandâs governor, would appoint one seat. Rhode Islandâs principal state official with marine fishery management responsibility would fill the second seat. Thus, the MAFMC would increase in size from 21 voting members to 23.
âThis is an issue of fairness and our fishermen deserve appropriate representation on the council,â Sen. Reed said in a statement.Â âMid-Atlantic regulated stocks now represent the majority of landings for Rhode Island commercial fishermen.Â It is time that our state has formal representation on the council and I am grateful to Senator Begich (D-AK) and other members of the commerce committee for including my legislation to help remedy this matter. Rhode Island fishermen are increasingly dependent and invested in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery, hauling in more squid than any other state currently on the council, but they donât have the same voice on management as other states do.Â Iâm pleased thatâs acknowledged in the commerce committeeâs draft bill.â
Ballou agreed, calling it a âhuge step forward.â
âOn behalf of the director and everyone in the Rhode Island fishing community, the community strongly supports this effort and is very appreciative of the strong efforts that Senator Reed has made,â he said. âWeâre very hopeful that the House will see fit to agree and ultimately the act will be amended to make this happen. Thereâs still a way to go, but this is very important for Rhode Island to be at the table, participating in the decision making process on fishery management issues that are of major importance to Rhode Islandâs interests.â