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Congress Goes Fishing

Here's what the newly passed Magnuson-Stevens Act means for American anglers and the fish they pursue.

September 21, 2007
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|| |—| || |BILL FOR FISH: Every angler should be aware of the changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Illustration: Jason Schneider| The old warhorses on Capitol Hill like to say, “You never want to see laws or sausages made because you don’t know what gets swept up into them.” Indeed, with the recent passage of the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), there was plenty of wrangling by various groups looking to get their agendas inked. The good news is that the latest MSA may be one of the biggest steps forward for recreational fishing in nearly 30 years.

But first a little refresher course. The MSA is a law that governs marine fisheries in the United States. It was, in part, created 31 years ago in response to foreign fleets invading our nearshore waters, sucking up whatever fish they could stuff in their freezer holds and then returning home. The original MSA created the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), effectively keeping foreign boats from setting a net or hook within 200 miles of our shores. But doing so gave U.S. commercial fishermen the proverbial key to the henhouse, and they plundered countless stocks of fish with little or no competition and hardly any regulation. The bill was revamped in 1996, instituting, among other things, a buyback program for the overgrown commercial fleet. Its success was lukewarm, as fish stocks have continued to decline. With numerous well-publicized reports in 2006 predicting an ocean devoid of life in as little as 43 years, Congress dusted off the MSA and decided to make some changes. Many conservation groups jumped into the fray to represent the interests of recreational fishermen, including the Coastal Conservation Association, the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. All sides, commercial, environmental and recreational, are claiming victory, but here’s what matters most to you.

1. Sound Science
Want to see the hair stand up on an angler’s neck? Ask him or her about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Nothing has ignited a firestorm of controversy in the last five years like the proposed closing of waters to recreational fishermen. The new MSA guarantees that MPAs can only be set up when based on hard science and not anecdotal evidence. Additionally, if an MPA is created, a guaranteed review process will determine when these no-fish zones are no longer needed.

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2. Pay to Play?
Even recreational fishing groups were splintered on the issue of salt water fishing licenses. The remaining holdouts, mainly the Northeast states, are fearful of another “needless” tax. Those pushing for licensing see the chance for statistical representation, which allows a louder voice during management discussions. The final verbiage in the bill is a watered-down version for each side, but one that takes a step forward. A no-fee federal angler registry will be implemented in states that don’t currently have licenses until 2011. In the meantime, SWS will continue to lobby for salt water licenses.

3. Fish Without Borders
Managing a gamefish, such as bluefin tuna, that migrates into foreign waters poses a problem, especially when those distant countries show no regard for international regulations. MSA seeks to change that by giving much-needed teeth to the penalties for nations that fail to live up to the treaties set up by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and other global governing bodies. Time will tell if this effort prevails.

4. The Incidentals
A focus on bycatch in the MSA is a huge step toward a sound marine environment. One of the first actions, as outlined by the act, will be identifying those fisheries with the most urgent bycatch problem. (We suggest officials take their yellow legal pads to the Gulf where shrimp boats are devastating the red snapper fishery.) The bill also mandates that research be done on how best to reduce bycatch and provides incentives for those that do.

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5. One Fish, Two Fish
The current Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS), which is used to record recreational catch data, is as absurd as a Terrell Owens end zone dance. Thankfully, MSA mandates a new system be put in place by 2009. It won’t be hard to improve upon the old MRFSS, and the data will help ensure better representation for anglers and their catches.

6. Can You Hear Us Now?
For the first time, the annual $36 billion industry known as recreational fishing will be recognized as a user group under the new MSA. No longer can a fishery decision be made without any concern for the livelihood of the recreational fishing community.

While some fear the new MSA may be too little too late for our ocean’s fisheries, the act made huge strides for the recreational fishermen. It’s a fish sausage we all can enjoy.

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Fluke Relief
The new MSA cuts summer flounder anglers a break.

Anglers in the Northeast heaved a collective sigh of relief when impending summer flounder regulations for 2007 were softened under the new MSA. The Recreational Fishing Alliance pushed hard to lengthen the rebuilding plan for the species, avoiding harsh cuts to the Total Average Landings for the coming season. The new plan gives scientists time for an accurate assessment of the stock.
– D.D.

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