WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) Chairman of the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, and Senator Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) have introduced a bill to leverage public-private partnerships and engage stakeholders like commercial fisherman, anglers, outfitters and other angling and sportsmen industries to make lasting improvements to the health and sustainability of our nation’s fish habitats. Their legislation, The National Fish Habitat Conservation Act (NFHCA) authorizes $7.2 million annually for fish habitat restoration and protection projects that are supported by regional Fish Habitat Partnerships.
“Choosing to protect our natural resources is good for our environment and our economy. Right now we need deliberate and targeted action to stem the loss of our precious fisheries resources and millions of related jobs, by ensuring that these important aquatic habitats are better preserved,” said Senator Cardin. “Our bill takes a comprehensive approach to stopping the single greatest cause of declining fish populations, by stemming the decline of healthy aquatic ecosystems that are critical to all fish species. We need to encourage healthier habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife as well as safer recreational waters for Americans to swim, boat and fish.”
“The legislation we’ve introduced stems from Senator Cardin’s and my shared goals of protecting, maintaining and improving our fish habitats,” said Senator Crapo. “Instead of creating new regulations and mandates, our bill fosters partnerships between federal, regional and local stakeholders to work together to promote healthy and sustainable fish populations for our communities.”
According to the most recent data available from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, in 2011, more than 90 million U.S. residents – 40 percent of all those over age 16 – participated in wildlife-related activities, including fishing, hunting and wildlife watching. These recreationists spent over $145 billion pursuing these activities, contributing to millions of jobs in industries and businesses that support wildlife-related recreation.
More than 700 species of fish can be found in the waters of North America. Fish are a cornerstone species in the ecosystem. Fish help maintain the ecological health and balance of aquatic ecosystems while providing critical sustenance to a wide variety of bird, reptile, and mammal species including iconic American species like Bald Eagles, Grizzly Bears, Great Blue Herons, and Alligators. The greatest threat to native fish species are the ecological impacts of habitat loss and habitat degradation.
Based on the successful wetlands conservation model established by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, The National Fish Habitat Conservation Act (NFHCA) will improve the availability of financial and technical resources to support local fish habitat conservation efforts. NFHCA also better coordinates local efforts to restore regional fish habitat to assure that individual efforts will result in the greatest improvements to fish habitat across regional watersheds.
The National Fish Habitat Conservation Act is supported by the American Sportfishing Association, The Conservation Fund, Trout Unlimited, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.
The National Fish Habitat Conservation Act
FINDINGS, PURPOSES, DEFINITIONS (Sec. 2 & Sec. 3)
- Healthy populations of fish depend on the conservation, protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish habitats in the United States.
- Fish habitats are needed to sustain fish populations and are valuable for natural, social, and economic reasons, but existing efforts have not fully provided sustainability. A renewed commitment is needed.
- Fish habitat resources are of enormous significance to the economy of the United States providing recreation for 60 million anglers; more than 828,000 jobs and approximately $115 billion in economic impact each year relating to recreational fishing; and 575,000 jobs and an additional $6 billion in economic impact tied to commercial fishing.
- The National Fish Habitat Action Plan (the Plan) provides a framework for maintaining and restoring fish habitat. Non-regulatory incentives can lead to significant progress, and stakeholder partnerships and federal agencies are critical to success.
- The Federal Government has numerous land and water management agencies that are critical to the implementation of the Plan – the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
- The FWS, U.S. Forest Service, BLM and NMFS each play a vital role in protecting fish habitats and the development, operation, and long-term success of fish habitat partnerships and project implementation.
- The U.S. Geological Survey, FWS and NMFS each play a vital role in scientific evaluation, data collection and mapping for fishery resources in the United States.
- The State and Territorial fish and wildlife agencies play a vital role in the protection, restoration and enhancement of the fish communities and the fish habitats in their respective states and territories and the development, operation and long-term success of fish habitat partnerships and project implementation.
- Many of the programs for conservation on private farmland, ranchland, and forestland that are carried out by the Secretary of Agriculture, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the State and Private Forestry programs of the Forest Service, are able to significantly contribute to the implementation of the Plan through the engagement of private landowners.
- The Act is intended to encourage stakeholder and government partnerships consistent with the Plan’s goals including restoring, protecting, and improving fish habitat; improving fisheries and their economic output; and coordinating federal actions.
NATIONAL FISH HABITAT BOARD (Sec. 4)
- A National Fish Habitat Board is established to promote, oversee, and coordinate the implementation of this Act and the Plan; to establish national goals and priorities for fish habitat conservation; to approve Fish Habitat Partnerships; and to review and recommend fish habitat conservation projects to the Secretary of Interior.
- The Board’s membership includes the heads of federal resource management agencies and programs, as well as representatives from State and Territorial agencies, Tribes, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, regional fisheries commissions and councils, recreational and commercial fishing sectors, conservation organizations, and industry.
- Board members serve three-year terms without compensation (travel expenses are covered), as does the Chair, who is elected by the Board from its membership.
- The Board convenes at the call of the Chair, but no less than twice a year.
- The Board may only adopt recommendations by a 2/3 vote of all members. A majority of board members constitutes a quorum.
FISH HABITAT PARTNERSHIPS (Sec. 5)
- The Board is authorized to approve and designate Fish Habitat Partnerships.
- The purposes of a Partnership shall be to coordinate the implementation of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan at a regional level; to identify strategic priorities for fish habitat conservation; to recommend to the Board fish habitat conservation projects that address a strategic priority of the Board; and to develop and carry out fish habitat conservation projects.
- The Board may approve an applicant for a Partnership if the Board determines the applicant:
- identifies representatives to provide support and technical assistance to the Partnership from a diverse group of public and private partners;
- is organized to promote the health of important fish habitats and distinct geographic areas, important fish species, or system types;
- is able to address issues and priorities at a nationally significant scale;
- includes a governance structure; and
- identifies strategic priorities for the Partnership’s particular geographic area and the completion (or significant progress toward completion) of a strategic plan for fish habitat conservation.
FISH HABITAT CONSERVATION PROJECTS (Sec. 6)
- Not later than March 31 of each calendar year, each Partnership shall submit to the Board a list of fish habitat conservation projects recommended by the Partnership for annual funding.
- By July 1 of each calendar year, the Board shall submit to the Secretary a description, including estimated costs, of each fish habitat conservation project that the Board recommends that the Secretary approve and fund under this Act, in order of priority, for the following fiscal year.
- In recommending projects to the Secretary, the Board must consider certain factors, including how well the project fulfills the Act’s goals; addresses the Board’s priorities; increases fish and wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities and public access; advances the conservation of fish and wildlife species that have been identified by the States as species of greatest conservation need; promotes strong and healthy fish habitats; and whether non-federal matching funds are available. The Secretary may approve or disapprove projects, or alter their relative priorities. The Secretary must justify disapproval or reprioritization.
- A Project is ineligible for funding or recommendation by the Board unless it includes an evaluation plan to assess its results; reflects appropriate changes to the project if project objectives are not met; identifies improvements to existing recreational fishing opportunities and the overall economic benefit to the local community of the project; and a report to the Board describing the findings of the assessment.
- A State, local government, or other non-Federal entity is not able to acquire any real property interest under this Act unless provisions are in place to make sure the project is managed for the purposes of this Act. The Federal government is not eligible to acquire real property interest under this Act.
- Any acquisition of fee title by a State, local government or non-governmental entity, where applicable and consistent with State laws and regulations, shall provide public access for compatible fish and wildlife-dependent recreation. Public access shall be closed only for purposes of protecting the public, property or habitat.
- All real property interest acquisition projects funded under this Act must be approved by the state agency in the state in which the project is occurring.
- If the State, local government or other non-federal entity violates any of the terms or conditions of the Act, the Secretary may require the respective entity to refund all or part of any payments received under the Act, with interest on the payments as determined appropriate by the Secretary.
- There is a 50% non-federal matching funds requirement, except for restoration and other non-acquisition projects on federal lands or waters. Funds provided to Indian tribes are considered non-federal. Non-federal match may include in-kind contributions.
- For projects not within a marine or estuarine habitat, the Secretary has the authority to approve, reject or reorder the priority of any project recommended by the Board.
- For projects within a marine or estuarine habitat, both the Secretary of Interior and Secretary of Commerce shall jointly approve, reject, or reorder any priority recommended by the Board.
NATIONAL FISH HABITAT CONSERVATION PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM (Sec. 7)
- The Director of FWS (the Director) shall establish a National Fish Habitat Conservation Partnership Program within FWS to provide operational funding for Partnerships; facilitate the cooperative development and approval of Partnerships; support high priority projects as identified by the Board; facilitate communication, cohesiveness, and efficient operations; facilitate the consideration of projects by the Board; help develop an interagency plan; coordinate technical and scientific reporting; and coordinate federal agencies in carrying out this Act.
- The Director, consulting with other agency heads, must develop an interagency plan for the operational needs of the Partnership Program and for interagency agreements to address them.
- The Director and the Assistant Administrator of NMFS shall each provide staff to support the Partnership Program, and states are encouraged to do the same.
- The Partnership Program may accept detailees and contractors.
- At least once each year, the Director is required to provide a report to the Board describing the activities of the Partnership Program.
TECHNICAL AND SCIENTIFIC ASSISTANCE (Sec. 8)
- The Director, the Assistant Administrator, and the Director of the United States Geological Survey, in coordination with the Forest Service and other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall provide scientific and technical assistance to the Partnerships, participants in fish habitat conservation projects, and the Board.
- Includes providing technical and scientific assistance in the development and implementation of Partnerships; for habitat assessment, strategic planning, and prioritization; the development and implementation of fish habitat conservation projects that are identified as high priorities by Partnerships and the Board; and resources to secure state agency scientific and technical assistance to support the Partnerships, participants and the Board.
CONSERVATION OF AQUATIC HABITAT FOR FISH AND OTHER AQUATIC ORGANISMS ON FEDERAL LAND (Sec. 9)
- To the extent consistent with the mission and authority of the applicable department or agency, Federal departments and agencies may coordinate with the Assistant Administrator and the Director to promote healthy fish populations and fish habitats.
COORDINATION WITH STATES AND INDIAN TRIBES (Sec. 10)
- Not later than 30 days before the date an action is scheduled to be implemented under this Act, the Secretary is required to notify and cooperate with the relevant state agencies and Tribal agencies within the boundaries of the action.
ACCOUNTABILITY AND REPORTING (Sec. 11)
- Every two years, the Board must submit to Congress a report describing the progress of this Act and the Plan. The report shall include projects that have been recommended and approved; a description of the opportunities for public recreational fishing established by the Act; estimates for progress on fish habitat that was maintained or improved under the Act; and an accounting for project expenditures.
- Starting in 2015 and every five years thereafter, the Board must submit to Congress a Status and Trends Report describing the status and trends of aquatic habitats in the United States.
EFFECT OF ACT (SAVINGS CLAUSES) (Sec. 12)
- The Act shall not be construed to:Additionally, nothing in this Act permits the use of funds made available under the Act to acquire real property or a real property interest without the written consent of each owner of the real property or real property interest.
- Establish any express or implied water rights in the United States for any purpose.
- Preempt or affect any State water law or interstate compact governing water.
- Affect any water right in existence on the date of enactment of this Act.
- Affect existing state authority over fish and wildlife management.
- Abridge or alter any treaty-reserved rights of Indian tribes.
- Diminish the Secretary’s ability to pursue adjudication of water rights.
- Affect the authority, jurisdiction or responsibility of the Department of Commerce to manage, control or regulate fish or fish habitats under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
- Permit funds made available under this Act to be used for fish and wildlife mitigation projects.
- The Act clarifies only a State, local government or other non-federal entity may acquire, under State law, water rights or rights to property under this Act.
NONAPPLICABILITY OF FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE ACT (Sec. 13)
- The Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 U.S.C. App) shall not apply to the Board or any Partnership.
FUNDING (Sec. 14)
- For fiscal years 2014-2018, the FWS is authorized to receive $7.2 million annually for fish habitat conservation projects, with a 5% annual set-aside for projects carried out by Indian tribes.
- For the same fiscal years, the bill authorizes 5% of the appropriated total for the Partnership Program. The Secretary shall annually transfer funds to other Federal departments and agencies to support participation in the Partnership Program.
- For technical and scientific assistance for fiscal years 2014-2018, there is authorized $500,000 annually for each the FWS, NMFS and U.S. Geological Survey.
- For planning and administrative expenses, the bill authorizes 3% of the appropriated total for use by the Board, FWS and NMFS.
- The Secretary may enter into cooperative agreements or contracts with Partnerships, as well as agreements with 501(c)(3) groups to solicit private donations. Donations may be used by other agencies through interagency agreements.
- The Secretary may accept and use grants from any person or entity, and may accept donations of funds, property, and services.