Thursday, August 18, 2016


It’s hard to argue that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the most successful, and most comprehensive, fisheries law in the world. 

Thanks to unambiguous language that requires federal fisheries managers to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks, Magnuson-Stevens has, in less than twenty years, fully rebuilt 39 once-depleted fish populations.  Because of the law, just 38 fish stocks are overfished today, compared to 92 in 2000; during the same period, the number of stocks subject to overfishing declined from 72 to a mere 28.

No other fishery management program in the United States, or in the world, has come close to doing as well.

Even so, Magnuson-Stevens has its detractors, mostly drawn from the ranks of those who, directly or indirectly, profit from the harvest of fish.  Commercial fishermen are the first folks that come to mind, but many of the largest and most successful commercial fishing operations support the law, realizing that their profits are directly linked to an abundance of product. 

On the other hand, some recreational fishermen, and much of the recreational fishing industry, haven’t yet digested that message, and are more interested in a bigger short-term kill than in healthy fish stocks and a sustainable long-term harvest.

The organizations that represent such recreational fishermen, along with a big piece of the fishing tackle and marine trades industries, sound like some of the least enlightened commercial fishermen in the country—folks like the New England trawlers who are driving the last nails into the coffins of southern stock winter flounder and Georges Bank cod—as they try to weaken the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.

Their chosen vehicle is a bill known as H.R. 1335, named the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”  It’s a bill so bad that its author, Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), had to reassure his constituents—some of the most enlightened fishermen in the nation, who know what conservation is worth—that their regional fisheries management council could keep on doing the good work that it’s currently doing, and needn’t adopt the sloppy and ineffective sort of management that H.R. 1335 would allow.

When you support a bill that bad, you can’t help but play a bit loose with the truth, in an effort to support your position.
I was reminded of that the other day, as I thumbed through the July/August issue of Tide, the in-house publication of the Coastal Conservation Association, and came across a piece called “Fixing the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” written by Matt Paxton, CCA’s federal lobbyist.

I know Matt, and there are few people on Earth who know more about Magnuson-Stevens.  He was once a member of the late Senator Ted Stevens’ staff, and drafted a good part of the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill.  But he’s in private practice now, and has clients who pay him to try to undo his earlier, very good work.

Speaking for such clients, he wrote that

“Never before in the last two major reauthorizations of the MSA or over the 40 years of the Act’s existence has the entire recreational fishing community come together to speak with one voice.”
That statement is patently untrue, of course.

There are something like 8,800,000 recreational salt water fishermen in the country, and probably only 100,000 or so—about 1% of the total—belong to CCA, which is probably the largest salt water fishing organization in the United States.  

Even if affiliated recreational organizations, all also trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, double, or perhaps triple, that number, it’s a pretty big stretch to say that “the entire recreational fishing community” is on the same side.  No matter how hard you spin the numbers, 3% is a very long way from “entire”…

Still, the story sounds good, regardless of whether it’s true.  

And I suppose they hope that if they keep repeating the same story long and loud enough, people won’t notice just how far out of the mainstream they really are.

Which brings us to the gentle dance that Matt performed when writing about the changes that H.R. 3094 would make to Magnuson-Stevens.  He describes them as

“providing certain exceptions for establishing annual catch limits to help ensure healthy fisheries are not unnecessarily closed.”
When you think about it, that statement just doesn’t make sense.

Magnuson-Stevens prohibits overfishing, which is defined as

“a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis,”
and requires all fishery management plans to contain

“annual catch limits…at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery.”
It’s hard to argue that measures that prevent putting a fish population’s productivity in jeopardy are “unnecessary,” 

And, of course, annual catch limits are also an integral part of fishery management plans intended to rebuild overfished stocks.  It’s tough to explain how a stock in need of rebuilding can be described as  “healthy.”

But if folks don’t really think about what they read, they might still believe it just because it’s in print…

People who do think about what they read tend to be a nightmare for the Magnuson-Stevens reformers, particularly if what they read includes the text of H.R. 3094.  It’s impossible to read that bill and not know that it bodes nothing but ill for the future of recreational fishing.

Although it contains a number of offensive provisions, the heart of H.R. 3094 is a set of loopholes that would allow managers to delay—perhaps forever—the rebuilding of overfished stocks.  Under one provision, rebuilding could be delayed indefinitely if

“the cause of the stock being depleted is outside the jurisdiction of the Council or the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities.”
So if you’re managing salmon that run up dammed rivers, or winter flounder that spawn in state-managed estuaries, rebuilding times are whatever you want them to be.  And let’s not even talk about species—Atlantic cod, black sea bass, etc.—impacted by warming waters…

A second  loophole would put short-term economic gain above the long-term health of fish stocks, by providing relief from the rebuilding deadlines if

“one or more components of a mixed-stock fishery are depleted but cannot be rebuilt within the time-frame without significant economic harm to the fishery…”
That would pretty well doom the cod stocks, so long as there were still haddock to kill.  It’s easy to see the same provision being applied to halt the rebuilding of red snapper and various deep-water grouper that are now in pretty bad shape.

But if those two provisions aren’t enough to keep harvests too high, there is always a final catch-all provision, which would permit managers to delay rebuilding if

“the stock has been affected by unusual events that make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”
It’s a great bit of drafting if you’re trying to avoid the burden of rebuilding stocks, since the marine environment is constantly changing, making “unusual events” of some sort an annual occurrence.  Whether we’re talking about rising sea temperatures or an outbreak of red tide, an upwelling of cold water, a lack of baitfish or a spike in the number of predators, there’s always going to be an “unusual event” of some sort that folks can use to excuse a delay.

So when Matt talks about “certain exceptions to establishing annual catch limits,” he’s not wrong, because with provisions such as the ones quoted above, we can all be very certain that there will always be exceptions to the requirement that annual catch limits be adopted and that stocks be promptly rebuilt.

Though I’m not sure that’s exactly what he was trying to say…

But perhaps the biggest Magnuson-Stevenson fable is the assertion that states can manage fish stocks better than federal managers can.  Such claim is being used in an effort to pull species, most particularly Gulf red snapper, out from under Magnuson-Stevens’ aegis, so that folks can kill more.  
That particular untruth doesn’t appear in the Tide article, but shows up pretty often in the propaganda that the Magnuson-Stevens “reform” folks put out, where you see things such as

“Although there are some who want to make state-based management a controversial issue, they don’t know the states like we do.
“If you’re a Florida coastal angler, ask yourself how many times you couldn’t fish for spotted sea trout because it was ‘overfished’ and had to be closed?...”
While Florida anglers might not be able to recall too many problems with sea trout, a few miles west, in Mississippi, spotted sea trout anglers are having real issues with their state-managed stock.

It turns out that Mississippi’s sea trout, usually called “speckled trout” or just “specks,” have, in fact, become overfished.  While no one yet knows whether there will be a closed season, much more restrictive regulations are certainly needed.

“speckled trout in the Magnolia State are receiving too much fishing pressure, and regulations need to be tightened to rebuild the stock…
“Current spawning potential ratio of Mississippi’s speckled trout population is 10.2 percent…During a [Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources] debate on raising the SPR of speckled trout to 20 percent, biologist Matt Hill said it could be done, but some significant changes would have to be made.
“’It would then be considered a population that is overfished,’ he said.  ‘To stop that, we would basically have to cut the harvest in half.’”
The same article notes that

“Between 1981 and 2013, Louisiana’s [speckled trout] SPR value ranged between 8 and 20 percent, with a median value of 11 percent.  Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries fisheries biologist Jason Adriance told Times/Picayune in July the current SPR is 10 percent.”
So it looks like the state-managed specks in Louisiana are overfished, too.

Suddenly, state management programs aren’t looking so good--unless, of course, you believe that fishing stocks down to overfished levels is fine.

We can only wonder whether speckled trout stocks would have fallen so low if states such as Mississippi and Louisiana managed fish the way federal managers do. 

Would the stocks still be overfished if the states had established annual catch limits designed to assure that overfishing would not occur?  

Would the stocks have declined so badly if state regulators imposed greater harvest restrictions when anglers exceeded their hard-poundage quotas, to keep such quotas from being exceeded again?

It’s a pretty good bet that the answer to both questions is no, and that the speckled trout stocks would be in much better shape if state managers did the same sort of things that federal managers do.

Because despite all of the stories that the Magnuson-Stevens reformers tell, the truth is that Magnuson-Stevens is working, and that federal fisheries are, on the whole, the healthiest fisheries in the nation.

Figures, not fables, prove that is so.

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