Only 31 years ago, fleets from foreign countries could fish as close as 12 nautical miles to the United States shoreline. Fish populations were severely depleted, impacting livelihoods for fishers and threatening biodiversity.
As a result, Congress passed the bipartisan Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). This law “extend[s] U.S. jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles,” uses science-based management to rebuild stocks and prevent overfishing, and ensures an economically sustainable yield via quotas and annual catch limits. The 1976 law created eight regional fishery management councils and has been updated twice, once in 1996 and again in 2007. Thanks to these efforts, U.S. fish populations are rebuilding, and now, 90 percent of fisheries fall below their annual catch limits. Last week, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans held a hearing to discuss areas for improvement to consider upon reauthorization. Both sides of the aisle praised the successes of the law and conceded need for change but had different ideas for what those alterations might be.
Critics of the MSA disapprove of the lack of “flexibility” it allows, with state managers like Mr. Nick Wiley (Director, Florida Fish and Wildlife Service) calling federal management of the recreational sector “truly a square peg in a round hole causing high levels of frustration.” The MSA requires federal fisheries managers to set annual catch limits and for overfished species to be recovered within 10 years, rules which some anglers consider too constricting. Mr. Wiley suggested that more management decisions be turned over to state and local governments, such as the highly contentious red snapper fishery. Representative Don Beyer (VA-8) expressed concern that the term “flexibility” could be “a euphemism to allow overfishing,” and Mr. Charles Witek (Recreational angler and outdoor writer) agreed there is already a substantial amount of flexibility in the MSA so long as annual catch limits are met.
There were several other concerns with the MSA voiced at the hearing. Mr. Jeff Kaelin (Government Relations, Lund’s Fisheries, Inc.) suggested changing standards for species recovery, basing them on biological lifecycles rather than the current 10-year standard. Recently designated marine national monuments further impact fisheries by forbidding anglers from fishing in these previously-accessible areas. Mr. Sean Martin (President, Hawaii Longline Association) criticized the designation of marine monuments in his home state of Hawaii, saying, “Fisheries operating in these areas were sustainably managed for several decades under the MSA and the Western Pacific Council.” Although the hearing centered around ways the act could be improved, everyone present voiced their strong support of the MSA, highlighting our nation’s world leadership in sustainable fisheries management.
The entire witness panel stressed better scientific data are needed to make fisheries management decisions, calling current data insufficient and worrying that these limitations were costing fishers by underestimating population numbers. With a particularly timely (given the current appropriations season) question, Ranking Member Jared Huffman (CA-13) addressed this concern, asking if Mr. Wiley would “support additional funding from Congress for [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the interstate fishery commissions to conduct more fishery independent data collection and more frequent stock assessments.” Mr. Wiley responded that, if steered properly, funding for improved data would indeed help.
This oversight hearing outlined a vast array of issues for Congress to contemplate as they consider reauthorization. The size of the federal government’s role in fisheries management was the overarching criticism from Republicans and their witnesses, while Democrats and their witness felt these protections are necessary for maintaining a sustainable yield and long-term profit.