National Fish Habitat Conservation Act

Summary

Beginning in 2001, the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council explored the notion of developing a partnership effort for fish and aquatic resources similar in scale and design as the highly successful North American Waterfowl Management Plan. By 2006, a charter for the National Fish Habitat Board was established and partnerships began to develop around the concept. Today, there are 20 regional, taxonomically specific or system specific partnerships recognized by the board. These localized, “bottom-up” partnerships have proven successful in implementing much needed habitat improvement projects on the ground. Unfortunately, in recent years, much of the limited funding available for the partnerships has been consumed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for program overhead or diverted to other programmatic areas, and the program has become much more of a “top-down” approach. Authorizing legislation to officially establish the National Fish Habitat Partnership is needed to clarify the roles of the partnerships, the NFHP Board and the Service, as well as to secure an avenue for consistent funding for on-the-ground fish and aquatic habitat conservation.

Background

In 2004, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) coordinated and partnered with federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribal interests, industry, and other interested stakeholders to create both a leadership team and a technical work group that would develop a fish habitat conservation model on a national scale. The genesis of this effort, and resulting National Fish Habitat Initiative (Initiative), was initially based on recommendations from the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council. 

In April 2006, this collaborative effort culminated in the release of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (Action Plan).  The Action Plan’s mission is to “protect, restore, and enhance the nation’s fish and aquatic communities through partnerships and foster fish habitat conservation and improve the quality of life for the American people.” It is grounded on science and driven by regional partnerships with the capacity to successfully achieve these fish habitat conservation goals and objectives.  The Action Plan has become the blueprint for the success we know today and for shaping the National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act. 

From the beginning, this has been an important effort to state fish and wildlife agencies and this continues to be a state-driven partnership effort. The overall strength and benefits from this partnership model are attributed to its strategic perspective, providing a framework for coordinated voluntary collaborative efforts of state, federal, and local agencies, local communities, industry, including non-governmental and other conservation organizations, and other partners.  This effort creates an opportunity for these agencies and organizations to come together around landscape-scale habitat concerns, prioritize strategic actions and develop and work toward common goals and objectives to protect, restore and enhance our nation’s most important freshwater, estuarine and marine fish habitats.  By strategically addressing habitat concerns, the collaborative efforts can best reverse declines of fish species and enhance fishing opportunities and improve the health of aquatic habitat.

The Action Plan’s implementation is currently guided by a 22-member Board comprised of national conservation leaders who are committed to aquatic habitat conservation. Fish Habitat Partnerships (FHP’s) are the delivery mechanism for habitat conservation planning and projects. While most are regional, some are system or taxonomically-based. These Partnerships are analogous to Joint Ventures that coordinate bird conservation actions across specific geographies. The 2006 Plan called for the establishment of at least 12 FHPs by 2010. The Board met all of the 2010 objectives set forth for them and the 2nd edition of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan was released in July 2012. To date, 20 FHPs have been officially recognized by the Board.

However, the NFHP was never intended to be driven solely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), but instead was designed to be a closely coordinated partnership program between local communities, conservation organizations, state agencies, the fishing/boating industry, tribal interests and federal natural resource management agencies. Over the course of several years, the Service has increasingly been shifting NFHP funds away from FHPs and on-the-ground conservation projects. Less than half of the $7.1 million appropriated to the NFHP program finds its way to the partnership for project implementation. Furthermore, where once the Service was a partner in the room during NFHP Board meetings where projects would be discussed and recommended for funding by the Board to the Service, today the Service uses NFHP funding to cover other needs within the Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program and no longer utilizes the Board for FHP project consideration nor recommendations. In addition, with the limited funds that are going to NFHP projects, the Service selects projects without NFHP Board input that typically can be completed within one year, which undercuts and undermines the longer-term fish habitat restoration activities needed for on-the-ground restoration success.

Since the inception of the National Fish Habitat Partnership, state natural resource agencies, conservation organizations and fishing industry leaders have advocated to officially establish the program through authorizing legislation to clarify the roles of the FHP’s, the NFHP Board and the Service, as well as to secure an avenue for consistent funding for on-the-ground aquatic habitat conservation. Congressional authorization is needed, now more than ever, to ensure the NFHP program is returned to the bottom-up, local community/state-based approach as it was intended, rather than the Service-driven, top-down bureaucracy it has evolved into today.

Recent Activity

The National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act (NFHCTPA) provides a strong overarching framework to build on the Action Plan and further advance fish habitat protection habitat conservation actions nationally. NFHCTPA is modeled on the strategic and local implementation of conservation actions within a specific geography to benefit fish and fish habitat. This state-driven and locally-based successful model of conservation is similar in concept to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Program which for over 25 years has proven to be one of the most successful conservation programs in the United States.

Thus far, three different iterations of the NFHCTPA has been introduced in the 115th Congress:

  • S. 1436 – National Fish Habitat Partnership Act was introduced by Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) on June 26, 2017. The bill was amended and was included as a part of the HELP for Wildlife Act on October 5, 2017.
  • S. 1514 – HELP for Wildlife Act introduced by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) on June 28, 2017, it was passed out the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on October 5, 2017, and included a version of the National Fish Habitat Partnership Act (S. 1436). S.1514 is currently awaiting floor action in the Senate.
  • H.R. 4489 - Authorizing Critical Conservation and Enabling Sportsmen and Sportswomen Act introduced by Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA) on November 30, 2017. The bill is currently before the House Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Forestry and Conservation.

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