Thursday, June 11, 2015


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the law of the land, which governs the harvest of fish in federal waters off every coast of the United States, from the cold, green waters of the Gulf of Maine to the warm, clear seas off Guam and Samoa.

It governs fish caught by everyone, whether they’re casual weekend anglers, veteran charter boat crews or those who chose to make a career of commercial fishing.  Whether fishermen seek marlin, haddock or mackerel, for sale, for food or to just let them go, the Magnuson-Stevens Act governs their actions.

Thus, it is only natural that any reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act should consider the needs of all of the nation, with respect to both geography and sector. 

But that’s not what we’re seeing this year.

Whether we talk about the radically conservation-hostile H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act that passed the House on the first of this month, or the more moderate Florida Fisheries Improvement Act that has been introduced in the Senate, this round of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization has taken on a particularly parochial slant, with recreational anglers and their industry allies from the southeastern states claiming center stage.

Sure, there’s input from elsewhere.  The New England trawlers are “flexibility” fans, because they know it means business as usual, the “flexibility” to keep overfishing badly overfished stocks, to make money while the making is good and then, when the last drop of blood is squeezed from the stone, to move on to other species and do it again .

Robert Vanesse, Executive Director of Saving Seafood, an organization that advocates for some members of the northeast’s commercial fishing industry, tried to justify support of H.R. 1335's "flexibility" by saying

“I don’t know why some people want to require a scientific principle wedded to a non-scientific that every species can be rebuilt in 10 years except that creates a club that’s useful to hold over the industry.”

“We support the ability to adjust a management action that would avoid economic hardship while still being able to achieve the rebuilding and recovery of a species.  The fish stock would reach the same desirable level but those in the fishery would not be devastated economically.
“We support prudent reform that is science based and considers the impacts of management actions on all fishermen, the fishing communities and the fish.”
However, not all members of the commercial fishing community believes that H.R. 1335 represents either prudent, science-based management or a means to achieve the rebuilding and recovery of fish stocks.  

“creates additional flexibility on rebuilding timelines for depleted fish stocks.  So if other factors are impacting (stocks) such as seals, climate change, it allows loopholes that don’t require the rebuilding of stocks.  It’s important that we acknowledge  other things that are impacting our fish stocks but we can’t use that as an excuse to not rebuild.  A fisherman deserves healthy stocks and a profitable fishery and in order to have these we need to rebuild.”

“If there were a ton of cod around and things looked better I might feel differently.  To loosen that up and go down that road [of flexibility] is just a disaster.  You’re never seeing codfish come back.”
In a way, such commercial support of the law is hardly surprising, as the current Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization is being driven primarily by a militant recreational fishing community that is focused on increasing harvests in the name of greater economic benefits for its members.  Thus, like the trawlers trying to kill off the last Gulf of Maine cod, the radical wing of the angling, fishing tackle and boatbuilding communities are seeking the “flexibility” to evade science-based catch limits, to avoid rebuilding stocks and to allow overfishing for short-term economic gain.

However, unlike the groundfish trawlers up in New England, the recreational fishing industry isn’t merely trying to increase its own allocation beyond biologically prudent bounds; it is actively seeking to encroach on allocations given to the commercial, and in at least one case, the for-hire sector as well.  Thus it is seeking a change in the law that would require regional fisheries management councils to reconsider allocations between the commercial and recreational (and sometimes for-hire) sectors on a regularly scheduled basis.

That, in itself, is not a bad thing, and could even be beneficial.  

Allocations tend to be based on historical data, which may now be decades old, and biological, environmental and demographic changes since many were made might very well justify a review.

However, here’s where things get a little strange.  

In both H.R. 1335 and the Florida Fisheries Improvement Act, the reallocation mandate is not applied coastwide.  

Instead, mandatory reexamination of allocations would only be required in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. 

That’s fine, perhaps, if you fish for red snapper or amberjack, but doesn’t help very much if you’re an angler in the mid-Atlantic who seeks summer flounder, a New Englander who likes to catch scup or, perhaps most relevant of all, a recreational fishermen who pursues Pacific halibut, where allocation issues are pressing and real.

Magnuson-Stevens is a nation-wide law.  The “big three” organizations trying to change it—the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association—purport to be national organizations.  But the current efforts to amend Magnuson-Stevens make it pretty clear that if you don’t live and fish in a handful of southeastern states—or if you fish for a living instead of for fun—you’re treated like an orphan, and given no consideration at all.

And that’s very wrong, for as noted earlier, Magnuson-Stevens is a national law, and should be addressing big-picture national issues, and not petty parochial concerns.

In fact, such national issues are few.  Magnuson-Stevens is working well, reducing overfishing and the number of overfished stocks to the lowest levels ever recorded.  Along most stretches of coast, there is little clamor for change.

Thus, the militant dissidents in the southeast, who would rather see landings governed by their appetite for fish rather than science, and don’t mind overfishing at all—at least, when they’re the ones doing it—have become a dominant voice in the reauthorization process. 

Instead of seeing changes to the law that would provide forage fish greater protection wherever they swim, or keep ecosystems intact, we see amendments to change allocations in the southeast, or to extend state waters out to nine miles, instead of the usual three—but, once again, only in the Gulf of Mexico.

Driven not by a desire to improve the law, but merely by a yearning to kill more fish than biology and prudence allow, and covetous of fish—particularly red snapper—brought to port on any boats but their own, they have demonstrated themselves willing to sacrifice the health of America’s fisheries in order to get their own way.

Because they are as bright as they are selfish, politically sophisticated and very well-heeled, there’s a fair chance that they will succeed.

And if that happens, we’ll find to our sorrow that the fish will be the most ill-treated orphans of all.

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