National Policy

Happy Birthday, Magnuson-Stevens Act – Looking Back at 35 Years of Federal Fisheries Management

This post is by Sean Cosgrove, Director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Gulf of Maine Campaign.

“Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” Mark Twain’s famous line about water allocation battles in the American West can fairly well be applied to the history of natural resource use in the U.S. as a whole. This is certainly true when it comes to the use and management of our nation’s commercial fisheries. Over the course of our history we’ve had some horrendous failures and some great successes, but over the march of time, natural resource management has largely evolved towards the American ideal that we need to use our natural resources in a manner that creates great benefits for the largest number of citizens today without hampering the ability of future generations to use and enjoy those same resources. Reaching this ideal continues as a work in progress.

In the early 1970s, one of greatest fights over fisheries management was between American fishermen and foreign fishing vessels, known as “distant water fleets,” which were fishing in waters near American shores but were outside of legal U.S. jurisdiction. Enter the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Signed into law 35 years ago today, our nation’s first true federal fisheries law declared that fish in U.S. waters and on the outer continental shelf were “valuable and renewable natural resources” that “contribute to the food supply, economy and health of the Nation, and provide recreational opportunities.” This obvious but important recognition was the first step in the statute to recognizing that all citizens of the U.S. had a stake in how commercial – and recreational – fisheries were managed. It also provided the step needed to assert U.S. jurisdiction of ocean waters out to 200 miles, and the elimination of the foreign vessels. The beginning of the evolution towards the American ideal of sustainable resource management had begun in earnest for our commercial fisheries. Subsequent revisions to the MSA focused on the development of “underutilized” species, and the collection of reliable data as “essential to the effective conservation, management, and scientific understanding of the fisheries resources of the United States.”

35 years ago today, Congress signed the Magnuson-Stevens Act into law (Photo credit: National Gallery of Art)

With the MSA established, an almost predictable set of events then took place. Those nasty foreign vessels that were taking all of “our fish” were sent away, and commercial fish stocks rebounded and were quickly caught by more and larger U.S. vessels. Then those same fish stocks plummeted downward. The first major revision of the MSA in 1996 recognized both the fact that it doesn’t take foreign vessels to create overfishing and that there is a real need to actively rebuild depleted stocks. Accordingly, Congress revamped the MSA “to prevent overfishing, to rebuild overfished stocks, to insure conservation, to facilitate long-term protection of essential fish habitats, and to realize the full potential of the Nation’s fishery resources.” The full scope of the fisheries management challenge was recognized and included the requirement to protect essential fish habitat. This formally recognized the sound scientific concept that fish populations are also determined by the health of their habitat.

The MSA was revised once again under the last Republican Congress and signed into law by the President George W. Bush in 2007. This time, the MSA included a timeline to rebuild depleted fish populations. Today, we see that efforts to protect and rebuild America’s ocean fish populations are working. Repairing damaged ecosystems goes hand in hand with revitalizing coastal economies and rebuilding jobs. Ending overfishing and rebuilding fish populations has far-reaching benefits which can mean as much as an additional $31 billion in seafood sales and support for 500,000 new U.S. jobs, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.[1] As the evolution towards the American ideal of fisheries management continues, we know it has not been without its problems. But, given the failures of the past, we have all the reason to move forward.

[1] Testimony of Eric Schwaab, Assistant Administrator of NMMS, on the implementation of the MSA before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard on Mach 8, 2011 (


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