Fishing for a stronger economy

Fishing for a stronger economy
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Fishing built America’s coastal economies. When fish stocks were abundant villages grew into cities and regions thrived on the commercial catch. But after WWII, factory ships overfished our seas, and when the resources disappeared most of our waterfronts and commercial fleets went bankrupt. Today, those old ports have gentrified into new ‘coastal communities’ of cndos, million-dollar homes and marinas full of recreational boats.

Today, America’s commercial fishermen serve a global market for animal feed and table fare. Most are owner-operator small businesses, fishing the same oceans as their grandfathers. Only now they share those waters with millions of new leisure-seekers — indeed, thanks to the ready availability of seaworthy boats and gear recreational anglers enjoy open access to coastal waters. And with GPS and precision electronics, even an amateur angler can find fish like the saltiest commercial captain. Lack of access to fisheries is not the issue some may claim.

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Indeed, although commercial fishing takes most of the catch by weight, recreational anglers have a significant impact on the fisheries. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2016 recreational anglers took 57 percent of the Atlantic coast catch, and 39 percent of the total in the Gulf of Mexico. Both sectors are identical in that without careful management, catch limits and enforcement they can and will exploit stocks to collapse.

 

Truth be told, without the far-sighted conservation policies of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it’s unlikely there’d be any fish left to catch, regardless of who’s fishing. After near-total collapse in the 1970s, more than 40 years of mandated controls have established a fragile balance to our fisheries. Today, the act protects nearly a trillion dollars of jobs and economic activity along our coasts.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act succeeds because it works through regional councils. They use best-available science to assess fish stocks, then develop and implement long-term conservation plans. Council members are commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, scientists and federal and state fisheries experts. The law is adaptable, flexible and implemented locally by the stakeholders.

Lately, a coalition of recreational and marine business leaders is lobbying to ‘modernize’ the law in favor of their own interests. They believe act’s conservation mandates are unfairly restricting recreational anglers, and that is bad for businesses. So they are working to increase angler access and blunt the law’s mandates by shifting authorities to the states. In reality, their ‘modernization’ will remove catch limits, weaken efforts to rebuild depleted stocks, and hollow out federal authorities that enforce compliance. These ideas aren’t modern — they’re a return to the bad old days of exploitation and decline.

So let us not be led into short-term temptation. Instead of falling backward into a free-for-all, now is the time to stay focused on long-term success and strengthen the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Now is the time to increase science budgets to better fund assessments, to implement accountability for all fishermen, and codify stronger legal mandates that help our Councils conserve for the future.

Nearly a trillion dollars of economic activity and hundreds of thousands of jobs are connected to businesses tied to our fisheries, yet the science to support our councils is perennially underfunded. Let’s strengthen the Magnuson-Stevens Act by appropriating significant new funding to existing line items. Let’s invest for more jobs and increase the resources supporting our communities. Financially, this isn’t hard.

Lobbyists say counting recreational fish can’t be done. That idea won’t hunt. Just as folks record their deer or tag a turkey at the end of the day, an improved act could incentivize folks to report their fish. We could easily use online reporting to collect many millions of data points to improve assessments. Technically, this isn’t hard.

Our fisheries will also benefit from strengthening the act’s legal framework. Recently, despite clear evidence for conservation, special interests used appeals to circumvent MSA and continue overfishing. In place of these extra-legal actions, let us instead mediate hard problems in a super-council of experts drawn from each of the regional councils and Federal authorities. Legally, this isn’t hard.

If American fisheries policy is to modernize, let us improve the Magnuson-Stevens Act based on fact-driven, long-term conservative management. Now is the time we strengthened this law to continue serving all stakeholders — both on land and at sea. Politically, this isn’t hard, so let’s do the right thing. Let’s invest in the future of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to conserve our jobs, our ways of life and our coastal communities.

Mark Eustis is a private recreational angler and an expert in applied geospatial solutions — computerized mapping and location intelligence. His environmental experience includes wetlands mapping, terrain assessments, forest stand analysis, coastal ecology, and marine robotics. He is working with historical fisheries data to map the shifting baselines that have impacted our coastal communities.