National Policy

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is Working in New England

Fishing stakeholders spoke to members of New England's congressional delegation at the State House this morning. Photo: City of Boston

This morning, stakeholders met with Senator Begich of Alaska, Massachusetts Senators Warren and Markey, and other members of the New England congressional delegation for a listening session on fisheries. Panel members included a number of industry representatives, fishermen, scientists, and local stakeholders. The panel discussed topics ranging from the ten-year rebuilding requirements in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to the economic condition of the fleet to the development of electronic monitoring technologies.

Conservation Law Foundation’s Peter Shelley delivered this testimony:

Good morning Senator Begich, Senator Warren, Senator Markey, members of our Congressional delegation, Massachusetts Senate President Murray and other distinguished members of the panel.

My name is Peter Shelley. I am Senior Counsel with New England’s Conservation Law Foundation. Thank you for your invitation to participate today. I think I may be painting a slightly different portrait of New England fishing than you have heard so far.

Nothing I say, however, should be understood or interpreted to indicate that I or CLF are either blind or insensitive to the personal tragedies that have befallen many fishing families as a result of the chronic and deep overfishing of many of the region’s groundfish stocks over the past three decades. We have supported the groundfish emergency declaration and continue to do so as well as supporting federal relief funding for affected families. My testimony concentrates primarily on issues that we think should be the highest priorities for reauthorization legislation.

The US fishing industry was born in New England over 400 years ago and today Massachusetts and Maine still rank as the second and third state in the nation in the dollar value of their landings. Fishing and the ocean have defined New England from its earliest times and all of us are proud of that tradition.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working in New England. Most of our fisheries are healthy and sustainable. From 1996 when the Sustainable Fisheries Act went into effect to 2011, gross boat revenues for all fish and shellfish landed in New England grew from $779 million to over $1 billion (2010 dollars).

Massachusetts fishermen increased their gross revenues from $316 million to $537 million. All the major ports in Massachusetts from New Bedford to Chatham-Provincetown to Gloucester have shared in these increased revenues. Those revenues multiply significantly once that seafood is landed.

Groundfish permit holders in New England have increased gross revenue from $226 million to $550 million. The accelerated groundfish fleet consolidation that occurred between 1995 and 2009 now appears to have slowed down.

There are also positive signs in the groundfish fishery for many stocks and a number of quotas increased last year. With continued rebuilding, these groundfish stocks should support new opportunities to grow and diversify fisheries in New England.

This is happening here because Congress took steps in 1996 and 2006 to force fisheries managers to prevent overfishing, to rebuild overfished stocks quickly, and to use science-based quota setting. Fishermen and fishing communities across New England paid a terrible price because those same actions were not taken earlier when the law allowed more “flexibility” in setting harvest levels.

There is adequate flexibility in the current law to allow the pursuit of more efficient and effective fisheries without compromising the need to rebuild and sustain healthy fish populations. I believe that much of the testimony this Subcommittee will hear across the country will show there is broad and diverse agreement on that.

At the same time, I believe Congress does urgently need to address several emerging issues in any reauthorization, all of which were raised in the recent NRC report on U.S. fisheries.

The oceans off our shores are changing as a result of carbon pollution. There will be shifts in sea temperatures, ocean pH levels, and perhaps even primary productivity.  These changes could have disastrous impacts on our existing fisheries. Maine is 80% dependent on lobster revenues; Massachusetts is 67% dependent on sea scallops and lobsters. Both species are potentially highly vulnerable to the impacts of carbon pollution.

The current single stock/MSY paradigm is a necessary but not sufficient approach for understanding and meeting these new ecological challenges. The science and management frameworks need to encompass elements of ecosystem-based fisheries management. The funding and performance of science, data collection, and monitoring that is necessary for such enhanced analysis has to improve.

New decision tools like the “management strategy evaluations” mentioned in the NRC report are needed that will help managers and the public understand the risks associated with different management choices in this changing environment. Congress should force that agenda forward in Magnuson.

Also, as recommended in the NRC report, stronger precautionary approaches should be required for harvesting the forage fish like herring or krill – the base of our fisheries food web. Abundant forage fish populations are crucial to higher value fish species in both commercial and recreational fisheries as well as other valuable ocean wildlife. Congress should require strict limits on any new forage fisheries.

Habitat protection and marine closed areas must be recognized for the strategic value they play, both now and—as the NRC report reinforces—in these changing ecosystems. As sea temperature changes cause fish to move into new regions, habitat closed areas may be the only tool available to ecologically mediate those changes.

Closed areas also provide critical research and insurance functions that cannot be supplied any other way. Right now, New England is considering opening thousands of square miles of ocean habitats that have been closed to fishing in some areas for decades. That would be a terrible mistake.

Magnuson-Stevens Act is not broken or misguided. Most of the criticisms of the act that I have heard are—at best—implementation or appropriation issues, not structural problems with the act. They need to be and are being dealt with at the agency level, not in a reauthorization.

The major ports in New England are all better off today—considerably better off—than they were twenty years ago. As the economic data shows, fishing operations in New England are more efficient, more diversified, and many are more profitable than they ever were in the past. Now is not to time to tinker with a law that’s working. Congress must face and address the more significant challenges that lie ahead.

Thank you for your time and attention.


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