Magnuson-Stevens Act Update

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the most important piece of legislation affecting both recreational and commercial fisheries, but it is stuck in the works.

commercial fishing vessel in Chatham Massachusetts
A commercial fishing vessel sits at moor in Chatham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Brian Yurasits via Unsplash

It’s that time again! Like the 17-year cicadas, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) has emerged for re-authorization. The MSA is the primary law that governs marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters, and it is supposed to be re-authorized every 10 years. But our Congressional representatives seem to find other, more important things to do. We may feel that the world revolves around fish, but Congress does not.

A previous effort at re-authorization went nowhere, so Rep. Jared Huffman, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, took the time and effort to tour the country and listen to stakeholder comments and thoughts on what would improve the existing legislation. Rep. Huffman then submitted H.R. 4690, Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act of 2021. Because of the effort, it had been the general feeling that this current re-authorization would move along fairly easily. But you know what they say about the best laid plans.

This time around, there are some changes to the MSA to hopefully make it better for the fish and the resource users. Hopefully. While there have been some suggestions on how to improve the proposed new language by a list of recreational interests led by the American Sportfishing Association, a long list of commercial interests suddenly came out of the woodwork to oppose major parts of the legislation change. This is what is slowing the process.

Proposed Protections for Forage Fish

One of the most important suggested changes in H.R. 4690 has to do with forage fish that form the base of the trophic pyramid and feed a lot of gamefish, birds and aquatic mammals. Their ecological function and value cannot be overstated. The proposed language would include consideration of the ecological value of managed forage fish when setting quotas.

It would also stop the development of new fisheries on unmanaged forage species until it has been determined what the harvest impacts will be on the species and marine ecosystem. Also, it would stop harvest until it was determined if management and conservation were needed. One of the largest fisheries that commercial interests cited is the menhaden fishery in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. They have far-reaching ecological impacts and those need to be recognized and managed.

Opposing User Groups

What is interesting and perhaps frustrating is that the sections commercial interests oppose should be a benefit to the resources and ultimately to them. Whatever the long-term benefit might be, the expressed perception is that they will take a hit in the hip pocket in the short-term.

A coalition consisting of The National Fisheries Institute (NFI), National Restaurant Association (NRA), National Retail Federation (NRF), National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR), and over 150 fishing companies penned a letter protesting the latest proposed iteration of the MSA.

In their own words, “We are especially concerned by H.R. 4690’s proposed new requirements relating to forage fish protection, essential fish habitat conservation, and bycatch avoidance.” They further complained, “Working under rigid new strictures, fishery managers—or judges responding to the claims of plaintiffs—would shut down or severely restrict some of our nation’s largest commercial fisheries to satisfy narrow legislative mandates and for reasons unrelated to marine ecosystem health.” Really?

Another sticking point is bycatch. In general, bycatch has been a real problem in a number of commercial fisheries. The new language would take out “to the extent practicable,” when referencing the minimizing of bycatch. There have been bycatch regulations in place, but this language change eliminates the wiggle room.

Bycatch in one of the largest commercial fisheries, walleye pollock in the Pacific northwest, is negatively impacting salmon runs in parts of Alaska. So, yes, this kind of bycatch needs to be managed and minimized.

Doing a better job of protecting essential fish habitat (EFH) seems like a no-brainer. If you destroy EFH it is going to be a negative impact on the long-term sustainability of fish stocks that use the EFH for spawning or just survival. If you want to line your pockets today, sure, forget EFH. If you have any interest in long-term sustainability, then you need to protect it.

A Solid Case for Re-Authorization

With all of these issues, it is hard to justify not supporting reasonable management changes that will mean more fish in the oceans for all users. Could there be short-term negative impacts? It is unreasonable to say an absolute “no.” But those possible short-term impacts would be out-weighed by the long-term benefits.

Recreational fishing interests have, by-in-large, supported the recommended changes in these three major areas. They are also pushing for better recreational fishing data to be used in managing recreational fisheries.

“We remain concerned by a lack of quality federal recreational fisheries data to adequately meet the Act’s strict management requirements,” reads a letter written by a group of conservation organizations representing recreational anglers, including the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), International Game Fish Association (IGFA), and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF). The group urges that fisheries managers move toward “…improving federal recreational fisheries data while adapting management requirements based on the data we have.”

I have also pushed for improved recreational data collection and completely support this effort. I hope that we will see “citizen science” play a reasoned part of this.

It is anyone’s guess where this effort to re-authorize MSA will go. If it does not pass in the lame duck session after the mid-term elections it will likely sit for a while, which is unfortunate. Sixteen years is long enough and this is a very important bill for the recreational fishing community.

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