As Congress returned this week from its month-long recess, the House of Representatives wasted no time in criticizing important conservation provisions of our nation’s foremost fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). In a hearing on Wednesday before the Natural Resources Committee, many participants—including fisheries scientists, fishery managers, and representatives of the seafood industry—made the case for revising the rules for how fish stocks are rebuilt under the MSA despite the law’s robust record of success in bringing vulnerable fish populations back from the brink of collapse.
Recognizing the harm that overfishing had inflicted on many of our nation’s fisheries, in 1996 Congress revised the MSA to require specific measures that would help depleted fish stocks recover. If a stock was considered overfished, fishery managers were required to implement a rebuilding plan that would ensure the stock’s recovery in as short a time as possible, but generally no longer than 10 years. Given the variability in the biology of many stocks, however, that timeframe was sometimes unrealistic and the law provided some flexibility to set longer rebuilding periods if necessary.
Some in the fishing industry have criticized the rebuilding requirements as inflexible and unduly burdensome on fishermen, and many of their Congressional allies have carried that message. Following on the release last week of a report by the National Academies of Science titled, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Fish Stock Rebuilding Plans in the United States,” the Natural Resources Committee zeroed in on that message of inflexibility, largely focusing on why the MSA’s rebuilding requirements need revision in order to better manage fisheries and minimize the socioeconomic impacts on fishing communities.
Unfortunately, the National Academies’ report has added fuel to this fire even as it acknowledges the central role that the law has played in rebuilding depleted fisheries. The report clearly states that the rebuilding requirements have led to “demonstrated successes” in helping vulnerable fish stocks recover. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), since 2000, 33 overfished stocks (41 percent) have been restored to healthy levels, and there is currently an all-time low of 40 stocks (18 percent) that are overfished. NMFS also states that in 2011, U.S. commercial fishermen landed over 9.8 billion pounds of seafood with the highest nominal value ever recorded, more than $5.3 billion, a 20 percent increase over 2010. Many argue that this success is largely due to the law’s rebuilding requirements and other critical management measures, such as scientifically-based annual catch limits that are now required for all federally-managed fisheries.
On the other hand, the report spends a good deal of time criticizing the very mechanisms responsible for this success and suggesting significant revisions. The report criticizes the rebuilding provisions as too strict and emphasizes the economic consequences the measures have had on fishing communities. Yet it fails to note that of the 43 stocks under active rebuilding plans, 53 percent of these have rebuilding periods that exceed 10 years—some of them are as long as 32, 71, or even 96 years. Despite these facts, the panel recommends getting rid of mandatory rebuilding periods and overhauling how rebuilding targets are set.
It should be noted that the National Academies’ report does include some positive findings that could improve how our fisheries are managed. For example, the report encourages more gradual precautionary management over time in order to build stronger buffers against fluctuations in the fishery in any given year. This common sense approach would help fisheries avoid the need for rebuilding plans in the first place, thereby better protecting fishermen and fishing communities in the long run. Some fishery managers have already adopted this kind of buffer system and we strongly encourage others to follow suit.
As we are just now starting to see considerable progress in reversing the effects of decades of overfishing, now is not the time to weaken the law. As Congress continues to review the MSA for reauthorization, we hope they will focus on building upon the law’s clear successes to ensure the stability and health of our fisheries for generations to come.