Changing Planet

Congress working to take fisheries backward 20 years

By Safina Center Staff

Bluefish. Painting: Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

It took the United States decades to develop and perfect an effective fisheries management plan that helps keep enough fish to feed both the nation’s people and its animals. The landmark legislation that turned around the country’s widespread overfishing problem was called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, passed in 1976. Since its passage and subsequent amendment tightening regulations in 1996, many once-overfished fish populations have recovered from the brink, from New England scallops to Mid-Atlantic bluefish, and are now plentiful in U.S. waters.

The astounding recoveries of these and numerous other fish species is now under grave threat from HR 200, a proposed amendment to Magnuson-Stevens calling for “flexibility” for fisheries managers in overseeing stocks, among other provisions. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill, sending it on to the Senate for consideration.

The flexibility called for by HR 200 is precisely what the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, an amendment to Magnuson-Stevens, removed from U.S. fisheries management. This move required fisheries managers to adhere to scientific advice when setting catch limits, which required a certain amount of each fish species to remain in the sea so stocks would continuously replenish.

“Prior to 1996, managers could ignore scientific advice, and usually did, setting catches much higher than their own scientists recommended,” said Carl Safina, founder and president of conservation nonprofit the Safina Center, who worked in federal fisheries management in the early 1990s and helped craft the 1996 Magnuson-Stevens amendment.

Magnuson-Stevens and its subsequent amendments—that passed in 1996 and those that strengthened the law in 2006—have worked well in helping threatened American fish stocks recover. Some, while still recovering, are doing better now than just a few decades ago. Since the year 2000, 44 depleted fish stocks have recovered. While 35 stocks remain depleted, and 30 are now being overfished, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries says overfishing remains near all-time lows, with just 15 percent of assessed fish stocks depleted and 9 percent experiencing overfishing in 2017.

Currently, every stock now deemed overfished must be managed according to a plan designed to eliminate continued exhaustion, while managers overseeing stocks found to be depleted must have a plan in place to allow the stock to recover to a specific numerical target within 10 years, with few exceptions.

“HR 200 would take us directly back to what did not work, and would ruin fisheries management in the US, to enact section 303 of HR 200,” said Safina. “That whole section should be deleted.”

Humans are not the only ones to benefit from Magnuson-Stevens and its 1996 and 2006 amendments. Wildlife that rely on fish for food—such as whales, seabirds and dolphins—all benefit from sustainably fished waters.

Sustainable fisheries require forward thinking with a focus on the future. The future of fish in U.S. waters would look very bleak if we pass HR 200 and allow recovered fish stocks to again become depleted and reverse the trend toward recovery for those now overfished. Your urgent help is needed. Write to or call your U.S. Senators asking them to oppose HR 200, and instead support commonsense, science-based fisheries management.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.

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