Sunday, April 19, 2015


Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued its annual Status of Stocks report.  Status of Stocks 2014 provided the good news that the number of overfished stocks, as well as the number of stocks experiencing overfishing, both hit all-time lows by the close of last year.

NMFS manages 469 separate stocks of fish.  The status of some of those stocks has not yet been determined.  However, of the 308 stocks for which the mortality status is known, only 26—about 8%--remain subject to overfishing, which is roughly a 50% reduction in the past 15 years.  Six stocks were removed from the overfishing list in 2014, including Gulf of Maine haddock, South Atlantic gag and snowy grouper, the Gulf of Mexico jacks complex, northern Atlantic albacore and western Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Of the 228 stocks for which the biomass status is known, about 16% remain overfished, which is down by about one-third since 2000.  Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and north Atlantic albacore were both declared to be no longer overfished last year.

In addition, three stocks, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper, golden tilefish and Gulf of Maine/Cape Hatteras butterfish, were declared fully rebuilt last year; including those three, a total of 37 once-overfished stocks have now been rebuilt since 2000, the year that a court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley put teeth in federal fisheries law and ushered in the modern era of salt water fisheries management.

Given how low the abundance of many fish stocks had fallen prior to the enactment of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which for the first time required United States’ fisheries managers to promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, that’s a pretty striking improvement in the health of our fish populations.

Eileen Sobek, the assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA, gave both her agency and the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in U.S. waters, some well-deserved praise, saying

“This report illustrates that the science-based management process under the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working to end overfishing and rebuild stocks…
“Our agency wants to let consumers know that the United States’ global leadership in responsible fisheries and sustainable seafood is paying off.  We are moving forward more than ever with efforts to replicate and export stewardship practices internationally.  As a result of the combined efforts of NOAA Fisheries, the regional fishery management councils, and all of our partners, the number of stocks listed as subject to overfishing or overfished continues to decline and is at an all-time low.”
Ms. Sobek is entitled to crow just a bit about a job well done.

Yet at the same time that NMFS celebrates its latest achievements, there are people on the waterfront and in the United States Congress who are striving to make fundamental changes in the way America’s fish stocks are managed.

Back in 1977, “Bert” Lance, who served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget early in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, said in an interview

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  That’s the trouble with government.  Fixing things that aren’t broken and not fixing things that are broken.”
Since then, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has become a clich√©, but one that has proved both useful and appropriate when applied to any number of issues.

It certainly applies to the Magnuson-Stevens Act today.

There is no better fisheries law in the world.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act regulates fishing on hundreds of stocks, along thousands of miles of coastline as different and distant from one another as those of Puerto Rico, Alaska and the islands of Saipan and Guam.  It is a law designed to benefit all species and all user groups by placing the focus where it needs to be placed, on the long-term health of fish populations, rather than on a favored industry sector and/or the short-term economic benefits that might accrue from overharvesting already stressed stocks.

Still, there are too many people who are looking for some way around the management process. 

Their motives are perfectly clear.  The harvest restrictions needed to rebuild stocks with any kind of certainty, and within a reasonable time frame, cut into folks’ short-term profits, whether those folks are commercial fishermen, who sell fish to the public, charter and party boat operators, who take people fishing, or boat builders, tackle manufacturers or tackle shop owners, who sell folks the merchandise that they need to catch fish on their own.

Using benevolent-sounding language such as “flexibility” and “strengthening fishing communities,” they are actively working to weaken the very measures that have made Magnuson-Stevens a success.

Right now, most of the impetus for “fixing” the law is coming from the recreational fishing community located on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, who are unhappy with red snapper management.  For years, the red snapper stock was badly overfished, and so long as the Gulf’s anglers could blame the problem on commercial harvest and the bycatch of juvenile red snapper in shrimp trawls, they were all for conservation measures that targeted those sectors.

However, once commercial harvest issues were largely eliminated, and managers began to focus on chronic recreational overharvest, the same recreational interests declared the federal management system to be broken, and are trying to convince federal legislators to introduce bills that would take red snapper management out from under the aegis of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, so that red snapper anglers in the Gulf would no longer be bound by the sort of science-based management system that has successfully ended overfishing and rebuilt stocks on every coast of the United States.

That would be bad enough if it only harmed red snapper, but those “anglers rights” and angling industry organizations have also banded together, under the banner of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, to take their efforts one step farther, and weaken the conservation and management provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, which would

“allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
In other words, it’s OK if we have fewer fish in our own, so long as they can kill a few more, and make some more money…

Recreational angling groups that have always looked askance at commercial interests and long pretended to cleave to a higher, conservation-oriented standard have pretty well taken the same position as the New England trawlers who have devastated cod populations, and some of the party boat fleet in the mid-Atlantic, which would have halted the recovery of summer flounder, scup and black sea bass if the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the NMFS regional office hadn’t stuck to their guns.

Their idea of “fixing” Magnuson is to change the very provisions that makes the law work.

If your idea of success is a healthy ocean, with abundant fish populations, it’s pretty clear that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is a success, even if all of its work isn't yet done.

Magnuson-Stevens “ain’t broke” at all.

And it’s in no need of “fixing.”

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