National Policy

The Magnuson-Stevens Act: A Safety Net for the Future

A New England trawl vessel sets out a net. Image via NOAA.

H.R. 200 would return us to a past many seem to have forgotten

By Jeffrey Pike and Jean Flemma

In 1976, two junior Congressmen from opposite coasts with seemingly nothing in common were united by a shared cause — casting a safety net for U.S. fishermen overrun by Russian and Japanese fishing vessels harvesting massive amounts of fish off our shores. The result? Gerry Studds from Massachusetts and Don Young from Alaska became the champions of a new law called the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 — now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). The law asserted U.S. ownership and management over the fishery resources within 200 miles of our coastline.

Rid of their common threat, the two regions quickly proceeded down dramatically different paths. The North Pacific became the model of how to manage fisheries, setting hard catch limits and holding fishermen accountable. In contrast, some New England fisheries became the poster child of “what not to do,” letting economic demands overshadow scientifically based management decisions. By 1993, an assessment of U.S. fisheries found that of the 71% of stocks with sufficient data to evaluate, 40% were overutilized, and 43% were fully utilized. The influence of politics and short-term financial considerations over Council management decisions was taking its toll, and major fisheries, like New England groundfish, were collapsing.

The situation demanded action. In 1996, Congressmen Studds, Young and others pushed for reforms to the MSA safety net that they determined were necessary to ensure the survival of both the fish and the fishing industry. These included requiring Councils to end overfishing and develop rebuilding plans for overfished stocks, and prohibiting them from setting biologically unstainable catch levels.

While these amendments were the first significant shift in fisheries management away from decisions driven by politics and short-term economic pressure, it was not enough. Though Councils around the country created dozens of rebuilding plans, chronic overfishing continued in certain areas, preventing the recovery of many stocks. So, in 2006, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, another advocate for the fishing industry, led an effort to further strengthen the MSA by requiring Councils to end overfishing immediately, to manage fisheries using science-based annual catch limits, and to make sure all fishermen — whether commercial, recreational, or charter—were held accountable to those catch limits.

The 1996 and 2006 amendments were championed by Members of Congress who were friends of the fishing industry but who also understood that the future of the industry rested on healthy fisheries. While rebuilding fish stocks required sacrifice and hard work, that hard work has paid off. In May 2018, the federal government reported that only 9% of fish stocks with enough data to evaluate them are subject to overfishing and only 15% are overfished — both all-time lows.

Despite this success, certain recreational and commercial fishing interests are now supporting legislation, H.R. 200, that would return us to a past they seem to have conveniently forgotten. Some want to exempt their class of fishermen from annual catch limits — requirements that prevent overfishing by ensuring all fishermen are held accountable for their catch. Others endorse exemptions from stock rebuilding timelines that were described by the Massachusetts Director of Marine Fisheries as “so far reaching and all encompassing,” that they render the rebuilding requirements virtually meaningless.

H.R. 200 would punch holes in the MSA safety net that has rebuilt America’s fisheries under the guise of “modernizing” our management system. History has shown that while some management Councils are able to resist political and financial pressures, others are not. It would be a grave mistake to weaken the MSA to once again allow Councils to set catch levels based on factors other than sound science, or to exempt certain fishermen to from annual catch limits and accountability measures. This is not the way to build sustainable fisheries, and it is definitely not modern.

We have been involved in our nation’s fisheries laws for more years than we care to count.  We’ve witnessed the progress made by fishermen, fishery managers, and Congress to rebuild and maintain sustainable fisheries for the future—progress that has made the MSA a model for the world. That progress is now in serious danger. Instead of returning to the unsustainable management approaches of the past, let us join the shared cause of protecting US fish and fishermen that brought Congressman Studds and Congressman Young together more than forty years ago. Congress should reject H.R. 200.

Jeffrey Pike was the Chief of Staff on the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and worked for Congressman Gerry Studds for 16 years.  Jean Flemma worked for Congressman Studds on the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and on the House Natural Resources Committee, where she served as a Senior Policy Advisor until 2015.


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