Proposed changes to the nation’s primary fishing law will mean stocks take longer to rebuild and, in the long run, will hurt the marine environment and cost the fishing industry jobs.

Or, the revisions will not hurt fish stocks, even as they take longer to rebuild; there is no harm to the environment; and immediate jobs will be created or in some cases saved.

These differing views are emerging as environmental groups and the fishing industry draw battle lines over changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The Magnuson Act, which controls fishing from 3 to 200 miles offshore, dates to 1976 but was last reauthorized in 2006. It expired in 2013.

The act controls catches of scallops, bluefish, surf clams, squid, porgy and numerous other species off the southern New Jersey coast including Cape May, the second largest fishing port on the East Coast; Barnegat Light; Atlantic City; Belford; and Point Pleasant.

The latest reauthorization is set to be discussed next week before the House Committee on Natural Resources. The chairman, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has a plan to ease up on stock rebuilding to help fishermen immediately.

Hastings calls it the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.” It is widely supported by both the commercial and recreational fishing industries in southern New Jersey.

But environmental groups, in a telephone press conference on Friday, called it the “Empty Oceans Act.”

Easing up on plans for rebuilding stocks could translate into anglers getting to keep more fish or catching smaller ones. It could mean commercial fishermen get larger quotas. The environmental groups argue this could come at a cost in the future.

The Magnuson revisions in 1996 and 2006 put in strong language to rebuild stocks. They prevented overfishing by having marine scientists come up with catch limits that fishery managers were required to follow. There were strict accountability measures. Green groups want to keep it that way and not return to the management before the revisions.

Lee Crockett, director of U.S Oceans for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said that since 2000, the stocks of 34 fish species have been rebuilt, and the number of species subject to overfishing has declined from 72 to 26.

“The Hastings proposal would reinstate a management system that too often ignored science, succumbed to political pressure and delayed action to restore vulnerable fish populations. This contributed to overfishing that drove the collapse of many fisheries in the 1980s and early 1990s,” Crockett said.

Fishermen, however, often question the science used in the process and argue the act has taken away jobs as catches are cut back. Even when stocks are rebuilding, they argue, they are seldom allowed to increase their catches.

“If the goal of Magnuson was to grow fish stocks, then it was a success. It was not the goal. It was designed to have fish and to create a robust fishing community. If you don’t have fishermen, then Magnuson is not a success. Magnuson is only providing positive results for half the equation,” said Jim Hutchinson, of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

RFA Executive Director Jim Donofrio said the 10-year rebuilding for each species the Magnuson revisions called for “is an arbitrary number” that has kept fishermen off the water.

“It was pulled out of a hat,” Donofrio said. “In a dynamic marine environment, there is no time frame. If stocks are on an upward trend, let us go fishing. We’re going to get behind Doc’s bill. It’s a good start.”

Changes are also supported by the commercial industry. “I think most of us feel we’re already solved overfishing, for the most part,” said Jeff Kaelin, of Lund’s Fisheries in the Port of Cape May.

Kaelin said the revisions called for taking all species to their Maximum Sustainable Yield, or MSY, but he noted doing that with some species, such as dogfish sharks, resulted in the sharks eating the babies of more valuable species, such as cod. He said the Hastings proposal even fails to address this problem.

“If you’re concerned about dogfish eating cod larvae, you might what to fish dogfish down below MSY, and this bill doesn’t allow it. The bill doesn’t go far enough to allow ecosystem management to occur,” Kaelin said.

Crockett disagrees with Kaelin on the MSY argument and says it should not be used to “kill a certain fish we don’t like or think is too abundant.” He does agree more ecosystem management is needed.

Crockett said fishery management should protect fish habitat, avoid incidental catches of nontarget species and save forage fish the larger, more valuable species feed on. He is concerned the Hastings bill allows fish councils to deal with endangered species issues, such as marine mammal incidental catches, instead of governing them by thorough reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Rick Marks, an attorney for the fishing industry who will testify before the House committee next week, said the industry just “needs some tweaks” and not sweeping reforms.

He said the Hastings proposal doesn’t end efforts to end overfishing but allows more time, up to three years, if there are “social and economic consequences” from immediate cutbacks. He disputed the environmental view that there will be long-range costs.

“Under-fishing is costing the country more money than overfishing, in lost yield,” Marks said.

He also noted The National Academy of Sciences in a report last year said the 10-year rebuilding was arbitrary and harmful to the industry. Marks said the Hastings bill bases the time frame on biological data.

He also supports new measures Hastings wants to put on fisheries run by catch-shares, a system where fishermen are given a share of a fishery, and no new entrants are allowed. Marks represented fishermen in Barnegat Light who created the golden tilefish fishery, only to see a new catch-share program give it to Long Island fishermen.

“A $10 million fishery went to three fishermen at one dock in New York. You can only put your hand on the hot stove once,” Marks said.

The next possible catch-share in New Jersey is for monkfish. Hastings wants to give fishermen a vote on whether a new catch-share program is set up.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711