Changing Planet

The Bottom Line: Rebuilding Plans Work for U.S. Fisheries

A congressional hearing today on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act examined a new report from the National Academies on the law’s effectiveness in rebuilding depleted fish populations. As a member of the peer-review panel for the report, I can attest to the amount of work that went into this study, which clearly recognizes our nation’s overall success in restoring fish stocks. But I also have serious concerns that some of its findings could lead some members of Congress to support new loopholes that could weaken our nation’s primary fisheries management law.

Released last week, the report reviews U.S. fisheries management since 2006. It rightly states that the current legal requirements have, “resulted in demonstrated successes in identifying and rebuilding overfished stocks.” The study also affirms that we need to prevent fish populations from becoming depleted in the first place. Such careful management would require fisheries managers to monitor the health of these fish stocks and decrease the amount of fishing if numbers decline below healthy levels. This approach would avert situations in which rebuilding is needed.

The progress noted in the report reinforces what many policymakers already know. Changes made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996 and 2006—including establishment of timelines to rebuild depleted fish populations and requirements to set annual science-based catch limits that prevent overfishing—are working. Thanks to these policy tools, 33 depleted fish species have been restored to healthy levels since 2000. Northwestern Atlantic sea scallops, Gulf of Mexico red grouper, and Pacific lingcod are among those that have rebounded under the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s rebuilding requirements.

Such prudent fisheries management is good not only for these fisheries but also for the communities that rely on fishing for their livelihoods. Economists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service estimated in 2011 that rebuilding all depleted U.S. fish stocks that year would have generated an additional $31 billion in sales, supported an additional 500,000 jobs, and increased the revenue that fishermen receive at the dock by $2.2 billion. The financial benefits of healthy fisheries for coastal communities are huge.

Just ask Captain John McMurray of Oceanside, NY. One of thousands of anglers who can speak to the effectiveness of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, McMurray is the owner and operator of “One More Cast” Charters and a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. At a July 23 hearing he told members of the Senate Commerce Committee that the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s fish rebuilding requirements are working for both his business and his community. McMurray added that recreational fishermen operating along the mid-Atlantic coast caught 21 million pounds of summer flounder in 2011, up from 2.7 million pounds in 1989. That’s nearly a 700 percent increase.

The new National Academies report makes the same case, but unfortunately several areas of the report are problematic. For one, it places short-term economics above potential long-term damage to marine ecosystems, arguing that forgoing efforts to restore depleted species would be an acceptable trade-off for greater access to healthier ones. In other words, the report suggests more flexibility to allow overfishing of a severely depleted population such as Georges Bank cod in order to ensure that commercial fishermen can catch more of healthier fish stocks in the same area such as haddock and pollock in New England. This is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Moreover, despite the proven success of the rebuilding requirements, the report suggests retreating from the mandatory rebuilding timelines and targets that have restored fish populations. This would be a return to the short-term thinking that has plagued U.S. fisheries management for decades where everything was negotiable.

The combination of these shortsighted approaches is likely to result in depleted fish populations and degraded marine ecosystems that will eventually be unable to support the fish that coastal communities depend on.

Fisheries around the nation are rebounding, thanks to the rebuilding requirements of 1996 and the annual catch limit requirements of 2006. Congressional leaders should keep those successes in mind as they look to amend the law. Any changes should build on those accomplishments, not undercut them.

Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Zack Bronson

    As an avid sport fisherman (and someone who occasionally hires a guide/charter boat and likes sushi every once and a while), i certainly agree with Crockett’s article. It unfortunate but we do need pay attention to our fisheries – that we don’t have unlimited supply. Its fortunate that we have had the Magnuson Stevens act that’s helped to rebuild fisheries. I’d like to think that what i enjoy doing, my boy will be able to continue when he’s my age.

    Magnuson Steven’s act is smart legislation that works towards protecting/preserving our fisheries for so everyone will have a chance to enjoy. It’s investing in the future of what my son and i are passionate about, and we want to continue to enjoy.

  • Edward Cheston

    Thank you, Lee, for advocating sensible, scientific, solutions to fisheries restoration. I couldn’t agree more. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working and we should let it continue to do so. Any changes to the law could set vulnerable fish populations back years. We have to resist the temptation of loosening restrictions for short term economic gains. In the long run, healthy fish stocks mean more jobs for fishermen and stronger fishing communities. Let’s stay the course on the MSA.

  • Karan Satia

    Lee Crockett touches on the point that certain aspects of fishery management policies should be non-negotiable; this is crucial in efforts to restore stocks to sustainable levels. With any amount of flexibility involved, each fishery will then need its own level of review regarding restoration deadlines and catch limits; this is certain to draw resources away from areas of concern that need the most attention.

    With the progress that’s been made in recent years, it seems foolhardy to allow for such actions that would detract from the amount of success that’s been reached. Hardened policies and rigid enforcement of catch limits and restoration deadlines have proven to work, and will continue to work, as long as the focus shifts away from short-term economics.

  • Laurie

    The restoration of US fish stocks due to the MSA is heartening but let’s exercise caution. The NA’s findings should NOT prompt Congress to take steps backwards based on this success. Thank you, Mr. Crockett, for advocating on this very important issue. MSA is smart lesgislation that is working. Let’s not do anything to weaken these marine ecosystems that remain fragile at this time.

  • Jackie Hutchings

    So many different stakesholders to please in this debate but the evidence is clear. It’s not about the now, it’s about building a future where fishing is managed in a way to keep the industry thriving for generations to come. The basic facts never change. Nature has an astounding way of rebounding back, even in the face of extreme human exploitation. If we work with nature, she will reward us. It’s time to stop selling the seed corn.

  • Toby Hewson

    I think Karan Satia has hit the nail on the head there. There needs to be strong, clearly defined parameters in order that loopholes or ‘grey areas’ don’t render the whole thing ineffective. Let’s make progress.

  • David Walsh

    One of the only things W ever did that I approve of was re-authorize the Magnuson Stevens Act. Its hard to argue with the role it played in rebuilding our nation’s fisheries. Stay the course!

  • Xavier Schipani

    Thanks for the information Lee. In the midst of the government shudown when Congress can’t seem to agree on anything. The MSA is a non-partisan, sensible policy that has already proven itself effective. Let’s keep it up.

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