National Policy

Happy 40th Birthday, Magnuson-Stevens Act!

A red cod swims through healthy kelp at Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/NEOO

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, our nation’s primary law governing fishing and fishery resources in the United States. Although New England fisheries have seen better days, the Magnuson-Stevens Act is also the primary reason why the United States can say that it has the most sustainable fisheries in the world.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, so named for its congressional champions, was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on April 13, 1976. And now, 40 years later, the law is up for reauthorization, meaning that Congress has the opportunity to build on the successes of our nation’s fisheries as well as make improvements where we face challenges.

In a blog published this week, the Pew Charitable Trusts addressed 5 Keys to Improving Ocean Health. While Pew’s piece was nationally-focused, let’s bring it down to the New England level. These principles apply to all fisheries in the United States – and to New England fisheries in a few unique ways:

  1. Protect forage fish: “The Magnuson-Stevens Act should be strengthened to require science-based catch limits for forage fish that ensure abundant food sources for seabirds, marine mammals, and bigger fish such as…Atlantic cod.”

It is vitally important to protect not only the commercially important fish at the top of the food chain (the ones that we love to eat), but those at the bottom of the food chain as well (forage fish, or the ones other fish love to eat) – and our laws should do the same. The ocean is a complex ecosystem and it’s the forage fish populations that provide food for schools of humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and for Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine. If we don’t enact legal protections for forage fish, then the protections we’ve worked so hard to put in place for our marine mammals and groundfish could become meaningless.

  1. Conserve habitat: “It’s important to strengthen the Magnuson-Stevens Act so that we safeguard the essential habitat that sustains fish and fishing communities over the long term.”

You only need to take one look at a map to understand the enormous fishing pressure that our region’s fish populations face on a daily basis. This is why it is essential to protect and close areas of our ocean, such as Cashes Ledge, where fish can find refuge. These special places serve as feeding, spawning, and shelter areas for fish. And although the Magnuson-Stevens Act only has jurisdiction over fish species and fishery-specific resources, conserving habitat would benefit myriad New England marine species, from blue mussels to blue sharks.

  1. Minimize waste: “The Magnuson-Stevens Act should be strengthened to minimize bycatch nationwide.”

Bycatch is a major problem facing our fisheries nationwide. Here in New England, where we currently have strict catch limits, particularly in the groundfish fishery, it’s increasingly important to reduce bycatch. Bycatch is harmful to ocean ecosystems and marine life, and can have economic implications for fishermen as well. Reducing bycatch not only means making necessary gear improvements on our fishing fleet, but also implementing full-time monitoring coverage to ensure collection of accurate catch data.

  1. Act with precaution: “Congress should include language requiring that new fisheries are allowed to proceed with caution and are sustainable from the outset.”

The New England Fishery Management Council unfortunately has a reputation of high-risk management behavior, such as permitting fishing of overfished stocks and making short-term economic decisions at the expense of long-term health. They recently broke this pattern, however, when they followed scientific recommendations and set a precautionary catch limit for the Gulf of Maine witch flounder stock. Moving forward, especially in the face of climate change, it’s critical that we see more of this type of management decision.

  1. Begin fishery ecosystem planning: “Congress should require regional fishery management councils to develop fishery ecosystem plans that can serve as roadmaps for a more comprehensive approach to management.”

It’s long past time for us to manage fish as what they are – one part of a larger, dynamic marine ecosystem. The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet; as a result, we are seeing fish populations shift geographically, impacting our local fisheries, fishermen, and coastal economies. And we’re only just starting to understand the impacts of increasing ocean acidification on New England’s marine species. In order to keep our fisheries from falling further towards the brink, we must account for a changing ocean.

The 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is certainly a landmark to be celebrated. It has traditionally represented a bipartisan effort toward responsible management of our fishery resources, economically and environmentally. When Congress reauthorizes the law, it’s important to remember this history and remember how much remains to be done – especially for the conservation of our ocean’s precious habitats and resources.


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