One Law is Saving Fish Species from Collapse - We Must Keep it Alive
For the first time in a generation, fish populations are getting healthier – science-based management and rebuilding requirements have led to the recovery of 23 fish species since 2000, according to NOAA Fisheries. This list includes popular fish like New England sea scallop, which comprises the second most valuable commercial fishery in the country, and summer flounder, a favorite for recreational anglers and local seafood markets in the Mid-Atlantic.
And it’s all thanks to the bipartisan, 36-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that’s helped to bring America’s marine fish populations back from the brink of collapse.
That law, however, is under attack right now by fishing lobbying groups that have organized a rally in Washington, D.C. today. Preserving the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) is the most effective way to keep fishermen fishing by ensuring that enough fish remain in the sea to spawn the next generation.
In fact, recreational fishing trips have actually increased since the major conservation provisions were added to the law. In the Mid-Atlantic, for example, the number of recreational angler trips increased by nearly one-third (from 15 million to nearly 20 million trips) from the 1990s, when popular fish species were depleted, to the 2000s, as fish species were recovering to healthy levels. Most interestingly, while the number of fish permitted to be brought ashore was restricted to allow populations to recover, the overall number of fish caught (including those thrown back) kept increasing along with the growing number of fishermen.
For example, in 1989, the year summer flounder’s population bottomed out at 12% of healthy levels, recreational anglers caught (including those captured and discarded) 2.7 million fish; in 2011, that number had climbed to over 21.5 million fish. Yet, to enable the species to recover and to accommodate the growing number of recreational anglers, the number of fish that could be kept has been limited to allow the population to grow back to healthy levels.
The growth in recreational fishing means more income and jobs. According to NOAA Fisheries’ most recent estimates of the economic contribution of marine recreational anglers, the increased number of angler trips from the 1990s to the 2000s in the Mid-Atlantic alone amounted to an additional $1.4 billion in economic value and 18,660 jobs. If these same fisheries had continued to be overfished, it’s unlikely fishermen would have kept paying to go fishing for fewer and fewer fish.
For many years, chronic overfishing decimated the nation’s fish stocks. By the early 1990s, the industry was bloated with too many boats and major fish populations like cod, haddock, and snapper were collapsing. Overfishing had effectively “deep fried the goose that laid the golden egg,” as then-Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) once said. By choosing to catch tomorrow’s fish today, we had accrued a debt that threatened to bankrupt the marine ecosystems on which we depend.
Do we really want to go back to that?
Congress responded to this crisis in 1996 by amending the MSA to require fisheries managers to rebuild depleted populations within a time period that is “as short as possible,” and if possible, within 10 years. The timeline is strict for a reason: absent a hard-line limit, managers too often put off the short-term reduction in catch necessary to succeed, and stocks fail to recover.
And, as mentioned above, it’s working. In the Mid-Atlantic alone, six of the most important species have rebuilt and overfishing has ended for all managed species. As you can see from the chart below, all six of these fish stocks were at or near all-time low population levels around 1996, when the MSA’s rebuilding mandate went into effect, and today all are at or above healthy population levels, according to official stock assessments.
This is an incredible accomplishment that deserves celebration, not attack; and it would not have been possible without a strong fisheries law.
Nonetheless, legislation pending in Congress (H.R. 1646, the “American Angler Preservation Act”; H.R. 3061, the “Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011”; and S. 632, the “Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011”) aims to weaken the requirements to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations quickly. The bills rely on the inaccurate claim that the 10-year rebuilding timeframe in the law is arbitrary and lacks flexibility – in other words, they need more time to rebuild fish stocks. But, scientists have calculated that the majority of fish species can rebuild within half that time – five years or less. And, for those species that cannot do so, the law already permits exceeding the 10-year limit under three broadly applied exceptions: when the biology of the stock, environmental conditions, or the requirements of an international agreement will not permit rebuilding that quickly. The existing flexibility in the law means that more than half of current rebuilding plans are allowed to exceed 10 years, some by decades (see this graphical representation from the Pew Environment Group showing the length of 40 current rebuilding plans).
The MSA has a clear track record of success and has become a model legal framework throughout the world. Nonetheless, dozens of major fish stocks remain depleted and are still subject to overfishing (in some regions, like New England, the majority of managed stocks are still overfished). According to the NOAA Fisheries, about one in four stocks with known status remain overfished, while one in five stocks are still subject to overfishing. In 2006, Congress once again strengthened the MSA by requiring fisheries managers to abide by the recommendations of scientists in establishing annual catch limits and accountability measures that prevent overfishing. These requirements, which have just been implemented across the country, are now coming under attack by some of the same folks who would like to rollback the mandate to rebuild depleted populations (see my earlier blog on these efforts).
Our work toward sustainable fisheries is not finished and challenges remain. But Magnuson-Stevens is proven to save fish species in danger, while keeping fishermen fishing at the same time, so our children can do the same. We need to keep what’s working in place and roll up our sleeves to improve what we have, rather than tearing it all down. Rolling back the law would not only jeopardize fishing for future generations, but also waste the important sacrifices that have already been made by fishermen over the past two decades. These sacrifices are now bearing fruit in the form of healthier and steadier catch levels for many important fish species. Let’s keep moving forward.
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