Fish Are on the Legislative Menu at a Recent Congressional Hearing

A House Natural Resources subcommittee discussed bills this week to protect fish and seabirds from climate change and overfishing.

This week, Congress convened a hearing on several bills that would improve the survival chances for seabirds, including two that the National Audubon Society supports: the Forage Fish Conservation Act and the Climate-Ready Fisheries Act of 2019.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act, H.R. 2236, would amend our federal fishery management law to account for the role that forage fish—the small, schooling fish that seabirds and other marine life rely on for food—play in the ocean ecosystem. This bill is needed now more than ever because global seabird populations have declined by 70% since 1950. Seabirds are currently threatened by climate change, oil spills, plastic pollution, disturbance, overfishing, and accidentally getting hooked or netted by fishermen. The Forage Fish Conservation Act works to reverse the threat of overfishing of forage fish, which many fish-eating birds, larger fish, dolphins and whales prey on. By enhancing the marine ecosystem, this bill supports many coastal communities and economies that rely on robust fisheries.

California Representative Jared Huffman chairs the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee and explained in the hearing that H.R. 2236 will help the country’s regional fishery management councils to more proactively manage forage fish. On the West Coast, pacific sardines have declined by 99% since 2006. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, a cosponsor of H.R. 2236, touched on the importance to conserve shad and herring, as those forage fish species have declined on the Atlantic Coast by 96% since 1950.

While the bill has support from 18 bipartisan cosponsors, several organizations in addition to Audubon, including Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Sportfishing Association and National Wildlife Federation, and over 100 scientists, there is still some confusion among members of Congress and the Trump administration on why this bill is necessary. The short answer is, our nation’s federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has not provided fishery managers with all the tools needed to protect forage fish from today’s threats. As a result, many regions lack adequate protections for forage fish.

The bill starts with a definition for forage fish that is broad enough to allow regional managers to create their own list of forage fish species—herring in New England, for example, and sardines in the Pacific. Then, the bill requires more focused actions on the part of fishery managers to conserve forage fish, which will promote consistent and dedicated conservation across the U.S.

As Kelly Ralston of the American Sportfishing Association stated in her testimony at the hearing, there is also a concern that there is not enough data to carry out the policies that the Forage Fish Conservation Act would require. “Fisheries data in general, and especially in my home region of the southeastern U.S., is rarely at the quantity and quality that fisheries managers and stakeholders would prefer,” Ralston acknowledged in her written testimony. Data costs time and money, and Audubon supports not only identifying funding sources for the activities outlined in the bill, but also ensuring that current funding for fisheries science is sustained. It’s important to note that this bill will not jeopardize funding for the fisheries science, enforcement, and other functions that NOAA Fisheries provides to keep our country’s fisheries operating sustainably.

The Climate-Ready Fisheries Act of 2019, H.R. 4679, protects birds, fishing communities, and coastal economies by ensuring that federal and state fishery managers are prepared for the effects of climate change. This bipartisan legislation, introduced by South Carolina Representative Joe Cunningham, is supported by many other conservation groups such as Ocean Conservancy and Marine Fish Conservation Network and has 14 bipartisan cosponsors. H.R. 4679 is especially important for seabirds, because climate change threatens seabirds at every stage of their lives.  Rising seas can flood their coastal nesting areas, ocean acidification disintegrates the shells of their prey like mollusks and squid, and warming oceans make it harder to find fish to eat.

At the hearing Rep. Cunningham explained that his bill is necessary in light of the recent United Nations report on the ocean and climate change, which found that sustainable fisheries management is one of the most critical actions we can take to protect the ocean and the people who rely on a healthy fishery from climate change.

Audubon thanks Representatives Huffman, Dingell, and Cunningham for their support of H.R. 2236 and H.R. 4679, and urges Congress to continue moving these bills forward in the legislative process.

Want to get involved in the fight to #SaveTheSeabirds? Act now to show your support for the Forage Fish Conservation Act, and get your community involved with the help of our advocacy team.


Update: The House Natural Resources Committee passed the Climate-Ready Fisheries Act, H.R. 4679, out of committee with a vote of 22-15. The next step is for the full U.S. House of Representatives to vote on, pass, and send this bill to the Senate. We are encouraged that our legislators are tackling climate change and its effects on seabirds.