Renewing the Magnuson Act, Part 1

Keep the nation on the Path to Sustainable Fisheries

One of the issues getting a lot of attention in the run-up to another reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (along with ecosystem-based management, upcoming in Renewing the Magnuson Act, Part 2) is adding “flexibility” to federal requirements to rebuild overfished fisheries. How Congress responds could have lasting implications for the future of fishing.

The challenge facing Congress will be balancing calls to give fishery managers more latitude in setting catch limits to end overfishing and more time to restore already overfished or depleted stocks, with the need to preserve progress in creating sustainable fisheries, progress that is directly attributable to strict mandates added to the law in past reauthorizations.

A pair of reports released last week by the Department of Commerce highlight what is at stake. The 2013 Annual Report on the Status of U.S. Fisheries shows the advances that NOAA Fisheries, the regional fishery management councils, and stakeholders have made toward ending overfishing and rebuilding stocks, with a total now of 34 stocks of fish recovered to sustainable levels since 2000.

As NOAA points out, “When stocks are rebuilt, they provide more economic opportunities for commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing.” The other report, Fisheries Economics of the United States 2012, shows a 7% gain in the value of the nation’s commercial and recreational fisheries since 2011, with a 3% growth in fishing-related jobs.

Nevertheless, fishermen complain that some rebuilding plans have hurt them unfairly. Among the concerns: Are restrictions on fishing imposed over the course of a rebuilding period formulated simply to meet a rigid deadline, or do they take into account the unique characteristics and needs of each fishery in order to minimize disruptions to fishermen and fishing communities? Are the sacrifices asked of fishermen applied fairly among the various fishing sectors; in other words, is their contribution to the solution equal to their part in the problem? And are the rebuilding plans dynamic enough to adapt to new information on the status of the stock or changes in the fishery or in the environment?

In our view, these are legitimate concerns, but ones that can be addressed through the implementation process set up under regional fishery management plans (FMPs), or possibly through revisions to the federal guidelines for development of FMPs, rather than through changes to the Magnuson Act itself.

In any case, it is absolutely critical that Congress carefully deliberates before it legislates, so as to renew the law in ways that will keep the nation on the path toward 100% sustainable fisheries while keeping fishermen fishing, and not make changes that could have unintended and disastrous consequences, such as creating loopholes in or broad-brush exceptions to rebuilding requirements that would set the nation back a decade or two. We don’t want to do that, and we don’t need to.

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