The Beacon

Congress Chips Away at Overfishing Progress

We’ve made a lot of progress in curbing overfishing in the past few decades – but that progress could be unraveled if several dangerous new bills make it through Congress.

On December 1, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine eight pending fisheries bills, many of which seek to undermine the nation’s foremost fisheries management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), and roll back decades of progress in rebuilding depleted fish populations. 

Among the bills under consideration are the “Fishery Science Improvement Act of 2011” (H.R. 2304), the “Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011” (H.R. 3061), and the “American Angler Preservation Act” (H.R. 1646).

Since 1976, the MSA has helped reverse the dangerous decline in U.S. fisheries that resulted from decades of overfishing. Under its reauthorization in 2006, fisheries managers are now finally required to implement specific measures by the end of 2011 to ensure that overfished stocks can adequately rebuild. 

These bills, erroneously disguised as “improvements,” would significantly weaken the law that has successfully governed federal fisheries management for thirty-five years by relaxing many key requirements of the law. Collectively, these bills threaten to undo much of the progress we have made in rebuilding depleted populations. 

The authors of these bills and their supporters argue that the science used to formulate strict catch limits is imprecise and infrequent. Therefore, in their view, we need to help fishermen by extending the deadline for rebuilding certain stocks or by exempting the stocks from catch limits altogether. This would allow fishermen to catch more fish with weak goals and non-existent limits. Not coincidentally, this is exactly the approach that caused the problem in the first place. 

Fisheries scientists will tell you that short of draining the ocean and counting the fish, fisheries science is always inexact and data becomes outdated as soon as it is gathered. Everyone agrees that we need more complete information, more frequent assessments of how fish populations are faring. There is also agreement that the tools we have can be used to manage our fisheries successfully while better tools are developed. 

But these improvements require resources. And in today’s fiscal climate, those resources are even scarcer. In an odd political quirk, the very people who decry the inadequacy of fisheries science and the infrequency of stock assessments are the very same people who voted to cut the funding for these programs. Again, in their view, the science is flawed so we should ignore it, keep fishing and not fix the problem.

These bills come at a time when many fishermen and coastal communities are feeling the effects of overfishing and a struggling economy. We all want thriving domestic commercial and recreational fishing industries that provide jobs and protect communities that have long depended on coastal resources. But weakening the law that has worked for decades to ensure the sustainability of our fisheries is simply not the right solution. 

We are only now starting to implement the measures that will help overfished stocks rebuild. We are starting to see success from these efforts and we must continue to let the law work as intended. 

We cannot afford to roll back this progress before we see the full fruits of these efforts. You can help by telling Congress to fight overfishing by keeping the Magnuson-Stevens Act strong!

Beckie Zisser is an Ocean Advocate at Oceana.


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