Debate Continues Over Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

2017-11-30T15:51:55+00:00 October 2, 2017|
The Magnuson-Stevens Act has helped restore U.S. fish populations, and now 90 percent of fisheries fall below their annual catch limits. (Credit: Bruno de Giusti, Wiki Commons)

(Click to enlarge) The Magnuson-Stevens Act has helped restore U.S. fish populations, and now 90 percent of fisheries fall below their annual catch limits. (Credit: Bruno de Giusti, Wiki Commons)

What It Was

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans held a hearing to address four federal fisheries management bills. Two would reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA; PL 109-479) – the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 200) and the Strengthening Fishing Communities through Improving Science, Increasing Flexibility, and Modernizing Fisheries Management Act (a discussion draft that has not been introduced). The other bills focused on recreational fishing, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (H.R. 2023) and the RED SNAPPER Act (H.R. 3588).

Why It Matters

The MSA, our nation’s primary fisheries management law, has rebuilt dozens of fish populations (stocks) in the 41 years since it was introduced. There has been widespread agreement in both chambers of the law’s importance, but debates have ensued about how to best move forward.

Key Points

Full Committee Chairman Emeritus Don Young (AK-At Large) and subcommittee Ranking Member Jared Huffman (CA-2) presented different versions of a MSA reauthorization (H.R. 200 and the discussion draft, respectively). H.R. 2023 would make changes to recreational fisheries (e.g., by increasing access and encouraging state-gathered data), and H.R. 3588 would expand regional management of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper. There was robust dialog on the MSA as a whole, but specifics of each bill were not deeply discussed.

Chairman Doug Lamborn (CO-05) reminded everyone that limits set by the MSA have impacts outside of fisheries and the environment, calling the hearing one about “supporting American small businesses.”

Subcommittee members and panelists agreed on the efficacy of the law, the critical role of science and data, and on not fishing at the maximum sustainable yield. However, there was disagreement on who should conduct sampling (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), fisheries management councils, or universities), what data should be used, and whether general or specific rebuilding requirements should be set for each stock.

Chairman Emeritus Young stressed the need for flexibility, specifically when setting timelines on rebuilding stocks and limiting annual catches. Ranking Member Huffman agreed there should be changes but cautioned against weakening the original law, and the Honorable Jonathan Mitchell (Mayor; New Bedford, MA) pushed back on the idea of flexibility, warning against making it a euphemism for deregulation.

Witnesses were asked to comment on the use of science at the state level for managing fisheries and preventing overfishing. Mr. Chris Blankenship (Commissioner, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources), Mr. Chris Macaluso (Director; Center for Marine Fisheries, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership), and Mr. Mike Merrifield (Fish Section Chairman, Southeastern Fisheries Association) praised the management of state and recreational fisheries and articulated anglers’ trust for state level management. There was bipartisan support for encouraging federal-state research efforts.

Ranking Member Huffman called out the partisan nature of the reauthorization process and asked instead for bipartisan “mutually agreed upon priorities” and an end to “poison pill provisions” that would undermine environmental legislation such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The current use of outdated stock assessments to set annual catch limits was broadly disliked by many panelists and Republicans and was acknowledged by NOAA and Democrats as a problem that could be fixed. Some struggled with the agency’s perspective of having the “best science available” and proposed that NOAA use alternative (more real-time) data sources from states or universities as a solution. How these data would be collected and which would be used has yet to be determined, but both parties agreed that state-federal cooperation would be advantageous.


“NOAA Fisheries stands ready to work with the Congress to craft a reauthorization bill that addresses current fishery management challenges and ensures the nation’s fisheries are able to meet the needs of both current and future generations.” – Mr. Chris Oliver (Assistant Administrator, NOAA Fisheries)

“We have been able to craft a fisheries management strategy that is flexible and based in sound science. The MSA is unique among natural resource laws in that best practices are crafted by fishermen and other stakeholders to deal with specific region challenges.” – Representative Nanette Barragán (CA-44)

“What we are dealing with is a one-size-fits-all, and it is not very adaptive, in my opinion.” – Representative Jody Hice (GA-10).

“The truth of the matter is there are plenty of fish out there…we just need to get our science right, and I think the bills that are being considered by this committee will get us there.” – Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-1)

Next Steps

Chairman Emeritus Young committed to progressing forward, declaring, “We’re going to try to get some things moving by October or November of this year.”

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

Witness Testimonies:

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership