Federal fisheries law re-authorization off course
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Over the last two decades, the United States made significant progress toward ensuring the long-term health of U.S. fish populations and the fishing communities that depend on them, as demonstrated in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) most recent report. Congress has twice re-authorized the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA), the body of law that governs fishing in federal waters. In doing so, Congress made several vital course corrections in terms of managing our nation’s fisheries; most importantly by setting strict rebuilding requirements for overfished stocks and requiring annual catch limits – of which both must be science-based. The third re-authorization, which is underway, should be a charm that protects and builds upon the progress we’ve made. Sadly, the bills currently being debated take us terribly off course, especially H.R. 200, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”

Let’s take a look at what the existing law requires, the changes H.R. 200 would make, and talk about charting a safer, more prosperous course for fish, fishermen, and associated industries.

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The MSA now mandates that all management decisions, including annual catch limits, be based on the best available science to reduce occurrences of overfishing, the practice of catching fish faster than they can reproduce.

This law also reduces instances of bycatch—the accidental taking and often wasting of undesired or protected species that play an important role in the ecosystem.

And the law includes provisions that protect essential fish habitats, including the seagrasses and reefs that are the spawning and nursery grounds for the very fish we harvest.

Over the past 10 years, this legal trifecta has led to the number known overfished stocks in U.S. waters dropping from 45 to only 35 today. Previously depleted stocks, including Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and Gulf of Maine butterfish, have come back to healthy levels. Recovered fisheries now support commercial and recreational fishing businesses up and down our coasts. And despite rampant pollution and the impacts of climate change, our oceans are far healthier than they would be without those essential provisions.

But H.R. 200 would undermine our most effective fisheries conservation and enhancement tools and could put local businesses and coastal communities at risk.

H.R. 200 threatens the current law’s strong foundation. It proposes to weaken many essential conservation measures, including the mandate to use science-based catch limits. Instead, it introduces the economic temptation to put short-term revenues on equal footing with long-term biological needs.

The bill also would inject too much ambiguity into the rebuilding timeline for overfished species. And it broadens the categories of data deemed to be “best available science” to include information provided by sources untrained in scientific survey methods and data gathering. Meanwhile, it prevents a critical improvement on the previous body of law. One provision would prevent the regional fisheries management councils from managing many “forage fish,” the short-lived species lower in the food chain that larger, typically more valuable species that we like to catch, prey upon.

The Network does not support H.R. 200 and believes it is the wrong foundation for reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We need legislation that preserves coastal fishing communities and working waterfronts intricately linked to the marine ecosystems on which they rely.

Responsible legislation maintains the essential provisions of this well-balanced law, namely the science-based catch limits proven to rebuild and maintain sustainable fish stocks. We need directives to improve bycatch reduction measures and directives that make us do a better job managing forage fish. And we need legislation that improves science-based assessments, catch accounting, and data management—which are essential to achieving healthier oceans and more productive fisheries. Finally, we need legislation that does a better job conserving essential fish habitats, including seagrasses and reefs.

Moving ahead, we look forward to working with the Senate on legislation that builds upon the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s success and strengthens it to meet the new challenges faced by our oceans, fishermen and fisheries.

Robert Vandermark is executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.