Proposed Fisheries Rule Would Cut Public Input, Info

August 27, 2008

 Reporters trying to cover fisheries issues may soon find decisions happening faster than they can cover them — if a rule proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service goes through as planned by the Bush administration. Blink and you may miss the story.

The rule would cut the time for public comment on fishery management plans to as little as 14 days — an unusually short period of time by the standard practice of federal rulemaking and environmental review during the last four decades. Some fishermen stay at sea longer than that.

The fishing industry applauded the proposal; conservationists panned it.

It pertains specifically to environmental impact reviews required on federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970. NEPA not only requires federal agencies to formally consider the environmental impacts of their major actions, but it requires that the public be informed about them (through Environmental Impact Statements) and be given a chance to comment and participate in decisions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (aka NOAA Fisheries) is a Commerce Department agency that regulates commercial fishing under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It usually approves recommendations of the eight regional fishery management councils. Those councils are dominated by fishing industry representatives, and the law waives conflict-of-interest rules, allowing commercial fishermen to write rules that affect their own financial interest.

Critics of the proposed NMFS rule, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, say it gives even more power to the regional councils.

NMFS received roughly 200,000 comments on its proposed rule, most opposing it. Some 80 members of Congress have opposed it.