skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

David Newman’s Blog

One Law is Saving Fish Species from Collapse - We Must Keep it Alive

David Newman

Posted March 21, 2012

, , , ,
Share | | |

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.

Mid-Atlantic Population Trends

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.


Credit: Photodisc

Share | | |


Bob VanasseMar 21 2012 11:27 PM

The renaissance of scallops happened before the re-auth of Magnuson. It also happend as a result of non-federal research (Univ of Mass.) contradicting federal regulation. How can you argue that it was a result of a bill that had not yet been drafted?

Ed MullisMar 22 2012 07:37 AM

I agree with Bob Vanasse. I am in the scallop business. The scallop management plan have been successful, however like anything the government gets involved in, there seems to be occurance of over management. It is my opinion that PEW and others should go find something else to do that makes them feel good about themselves and leave our scallop industry alone. Obviously we do not need their assistance, nor were they a part of our management plan that was drafted by people involved in the scallop industry.

David NewmanMar 22 2012 12:57 PM

Thanks for your comments. As you know, the first sea scallop rebuilding plan was established in 1993 under Amendment 4 to the federal sea scallop fishery management plan under Magnuson. Fishermen, scientists, and other stakeholders all played important roles in adopting the plan. The first plan aimed to rebuild by 2000 (7 years) and included limited access, effort controls, closed areas, and gear changes. In 1993, the scallop biomass was at an all-time low of 12% of biomass at maximum sustainable yield. By 1996, when the tough rebuilding provisions were added to the MSA, scallop was showing signs of recovery, but not fast enough to meet the 7-year target. So, in 1998, federal fishery managers revised the rebuilding plan, setting a new 10-year target and further tightening the management measures. This did the trick, speeding up rebuilding so the stock was formally declared rebuilt in 2001, just one year after the first rebuilding target. As a result, since 2003, the industry has sustainably and consistently harvested over 25,000 metric tons per year (worth over $330 million per year), which is about 3 times the average amount harvested before it was rebuilt. You are right to highlight the cooperative research conducted with fishermen and independent scientific institutions - this was critical to the success of the system of rotating area closures. It's a great example of fishermen, scientists, and fishery managers working together to rebuild fisheries and restore much-needed economic vitality to a struggling industry. However, the strong legal framework provided by Magnuson-Stevens provided the governance structure necessary to ensure the new management system actually worked. We should all celebrate the great work that went into rebuilding this valuable fishery, rather than arguing over who can claim credit for it.

Captain Geoffrey OwensMar 22 2012 09:04 PM

What about when flawed or cherry picked science is used to completely shut down vital fisheries such as red snapper.Before the shutdown in 2010,2009 was the best year I've ever had .That "new" re-authorized Magnuson Stevens act also mandated that new up to date data be used to assess fisheries,fishing councils used the mandate to shut down perfectly healthy fisheries and put thousands out of work without correcting the science.Data from the 1940's were used to shut down red snapper in the South Atlantic,if the data from 1980's and 90's was deemed flawed how accurate do you think data from the40's was.

Britton ShackelfordMar 23 2012 08:22 PM

I will quote a very wise friend of mine, David "you can fool the fans, but you can't fool the players". You may think you are doing your due diligence as a partaker of the kool-aid, but don't try and hood-wink those of us in the trenches. One only need to be a fisherman, much less a scallop fisherman, to know that your referencing scallops as a "success" of Magnuson, tips your hat as a subscriber of a lie. Magnuson is broken, and it is designed to break fishermen. I find fault with you, and everyone like you, that lies to the public about what "fishery management" should look like. I think a job at the "Enquirer" would suit you better than even commenting on such a noble profession as fishing. Go get an honest job, and make your mom proud. Capt. Britton Shackelford Manteo, NC

David NewmanMar 23 2012 10:00 PM

South Atlantic red snapper has been the subject of two benchmark stock assessments in the last four years, SEDAR 15 in 2008 and SEDAR 24 in 2010. The first assessment found the red snapper population at between 2-3% of its biomass at maximum sustainable yield and still subject to overfishing at 5-7 times a sustainable rate. To assuage concerns that the assessment might have been faulty, it was re-assessed in 2010. The conclusions were very similar, finding the population at 8% of a healthy biomass and still being overfished by more than 4 times the sustainable rate.

Each assessment was subjected to three peer review workshops, one to evaluate the data, one to review the assessment models, and one to review the results. The data workshop alone included 69 scientists, fishermen, fishery managers, industry representatives, and other stakeholders. The workshops were open to the public, and the hundreds of pages of reports and data that comprise the assessment are all publicly available on the Southeast Fishery Science Center website: To answer your question, catch and survey data from as recent as the year before the final assessment (2009 for the 2010 assessment) was used. That's as up to date as it gets.

If the science found the stock to be healthy, I'd be the first person pushing to reopen the red snapper fishery.

Captain Geoffrey OwensMar 23 2012 11:06 PM

Sounds like you have been getting(spending all day researching)the South Atlantic sedar reports,let me tell you no fisherman commercial or charter showed up at sedar 15.And let me inform you how the SAFMC gets their fishery independent data from the MARMAP survey,a longline and trap vessel used for data surveys out of Charleston,SC.They set in gear in random latitude longitude grids.They do not have known waypoints for finding a particular species.Basically they set in the sand and mud. If they do not record a good CPUE(catch per unit effort) the out come is not favorable since this survey weighs heavily on the assessment.If I am looking for people I'm not going to look in the desert,I'm going to look in Las Vegas or Phoenix,red snapper do not roam freely in the sand.Let me tell you about another third of the assessment,the MRFISS survey,basically they (NMFS) calls ten people in a zip code and ask if they went fishing and how many fish they caught.They look at how many recreational fishing permits were issued in that area.They take an average how many fish those people caught and apply the same ratio to the same zip code.This system was so flawed that congress mandated in your re-authorized Magnuson Stevenson Act that you are so proud of to be changed before any new stock assessments and management decisions were made.Here's another one,I've been fishing in NE Florida for 21 years,when I first started working on the headboats in 92' legal sized red snapper were non existent.We had three banner years of red snapper fishing and then it was shut down.We started making money and red snapper were identified as a choke species by EDF and PEW,suddenly all the pressure was put on the council (70%) EDF and CCA supported without many fisherman even knowing what was going on.
By the way I am a commercial spearfisherman and I dive thousands of spots from Daytona to Cape Lookout every year.I see first hand the size and numbers of schools of red snapper.I know what is in that ocean and it isn't what SAFMC,NMFS, or any NGO tries to sell what they are saying what is out there.
When 15 (sedar) came out the first initial action was a complete bottom fishing closure from Hatteras to Key West,after we called them out on their data and got a new assessment there was no bottom closure needed.Those low levels that you claim from these studies were used from a 1947 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey as a baseline for spawning stock biomass.
I have offered hundreds of underwater videos of red snapper from all up and the se coast only to met with opposition(from the SAFMC lead scientist) because it is deemed biased data,only because I know where red snapper aggregate,the only reason red snapper were shut down was to force catch shares upon recreational and commercial fisherman.If we took catch shares and received a 62% cut in landings they would be open.Why would we get a 62% reduction,so NGO's can buy up the rest of the shares and sell them off to wall street hedge funds to support their agenda.
And if you want to see how "thick" red snapper really are I suggest you make a trip with me and witness it first hand instead of rambling off NMFS skewed data reports.

Rusty HudsonMar 24 2012 03:01 PM

Hi David et al,

SouthEast Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR 24) process analysts were primarily the same scientists from SEDAR 15 and it appreared to us they tried to mimic SEDAR 15 in many ways, especially depending on the Salt Water Anglers Survey (SWAS) from 1960, 1965 & 1970 and the early MRFSS years from 1981-1986 full of unrealistic assumptions as per recreational catches. The S24 data workshop (DW) and the S24 assessment workshop were not peer review events, but a gathering of the panelists and observers, along with a different representative taking notes and then submitting a written comment for the record from the Center for Independent Experts at each of the DW & AW events. The S24 Review Workshop (RW) consisted of 3 different CIE scientists who are fundamentally constrained by the SEDAR Terms of References (TORs).

That was a basic overview above of how S24 was scheduled and below I will show you two main events that unfolded to change the previous view of the red snapper stock as per S15. Short S24 schedule URL

On September 06, 2010 you will see the end of the public comment period on the S24 AW preliminary results took place and the CIE AW observer submitted the following account and suggestions.

Then you will see the S24 webinar for September 09, 2010 to discuss the public comments and suggested adjustments and then follow up on September 21, with the analysts response. Somehow the analysts decided to further change the inputs after September 21, thus radically changing the S24 AW results and never allosed the S24 AW Panel to add further comment or suggestions before the final S24 AW product was delivered to the S24 RW to begin work. Industry submitted comments to the S24 RW, but were constrained by the S24 TORs as I mentioned before so proper adjustments to the model inputs and other sensitivity runs never took place David that would have made a big difference. Time constraints to achieve a faster than normal full benchmark final report was the excuse that both the analysts and the SAFMC used as an excuse. Of course red snapper was closed by S15 through an interim rule on January 04, 2010 from NC to the Florida Keys and so the only ones in a hurry to do something were the analysts and the SAFMC because they were mandated to be able to stop "overfishing" before the end of 2010.

Then to achieve rebuilding efforts based on S15, the SAFMC were having to consider massive area closures to all bottom fishing spatially and temporally in addition to the no take of red snappers.

To make an old story shorter, the Beaufort Lab analysts had to develop projections using a variation of the earlier S24 model results during November 2010 that showed that no area closure was needed now.

Since you came into the picture around this time at SAFMC meetings, you probably remember that NMFS/SAFMC had to use an emergency rulemaking to delay the massive area closure for bottom fishing until June 2011. By then the revised S24 projections helped to develop Regulatory Amendment 10 that achieved the elimination of the draconian bottom fishing area closure caused by S15.

The Beaufort, NC NMFS analysts could have done several things differently but chose not to do so. The mimic of S15 was very evident. Anyway, if by chance you ever read any of the work of Captain David Nelson about S15 & S24, in addition to changing the absurd assumptions about the historic period for the recreational fleet from the 1940's to the 1970's through SWAS, plus MRFSS recalibrations through MRIP and other modifications to the model base run inputs and sensitivity runs could make all the difference in the world to demonstrate the reality at the side of the boat that should allow NMFS to Keep Fishermen Fishing.

If you wish to dig deeper to find the devil in the details, you know how to contact me anytime David. Our DC rally did not and does not endorse destroying our fish stocks and in the same spirit we are giving up a lot while protecting the environment.

We also realize excessive negative regulatory effects based on questionable science by NMFS are destroying fishing communities infrastructure across this nation for years now and must be reigned in.

Our family and friends that live in these coastal regions are hurting and before we are gone entirely as a culture some logic and common sense needs to replace the preservationist agenda currently in place.

Rusty Hudson
DSF, Inc.

Capt Bob BryantMar 25 2012 09:16 AM much did EDF or PEW pay for this piece of propaganda.
NMFS is completely off the rails and the species that have rebounded did so in spite of NMFS not because of it.
NMFS has abandoned any concept of fishery based science or management and is strictly concerned with managing fisherman now (this means keeping them off the water).
How can anyone say that a 40 day Red Snapper season (shortest ever) or 180 day Grouper season is a success; only an idiot or agenda driven hack would view that as a success.
No law, no how after only being in place for 4 years can result in the come back of some fisheries we have seen.
Most of the rebounds came form the decimation of the shrimp industry in the Gulf following Katrina.
It is through the hard work of fishermen and concern for the fisheries that many stocks have made a come back....
Pure and simple

Doug maxfieldMar 26 2012 10:53 AM

Singing the praises of MSA? I understand that the numbers on paper will tell you anything you want them too, but up here in gloucester the action in the hardor speaks for itself: fewer boats; fewer jobs; fewer trips made; shoreside support starving...and the fish? Well look how well the cod are doing. For those who think the cod are in trouble, just wait until the next yellowtail flounder assesment comes out.
If the MSA were even close to a success, wouldn't we see a loosening of regulation instead of the yearly squeeze? Perhaps 36 years isn't quite long enough...
Ask an old fisherman about regulations and he will talk your ear off. Ask a new fisherman about regulations and he will, oh, wait. There are no new fishermen.

Terry GibsonMar 26 2012 12:12 PM

I'm so tired of hearing about the "junk science" for red snapper in the Gulf and South Atlantic. Just because you all don't like what the assessments say doesn't mean it lacks accuracy. In fact, NOAA/NMFS and FWC have made exhausting efforts to search for things like the alleged "cryptic biomass" of large adult fish in both water bodies that their surveys allegedly "missed." Fishermen designed that search effort and SURPRISE SURPRISE SURPRISE they couldn't even catch the fish they said they were there. Look, I fish for the things all the time. What you're seeing is a couple of strong year classes of young fish and a population that's on the road to recovery. Be patient, and we'll all get to see what a really healthy red snapper fishery looks like for the first time since my grandad and his generation hammered them.

David NewmanMar 26 2012 12:55 PM

Also keep in mind that the number of recreational anglers in the South Atlantic has grown substantially over the past few decades. The average annual angler trips in the South Atlantic in the 1980s was just under 15 million per year. That number increased to an average of over 17 million per year in the 90s and over 20 million per year over the past decade. That's one-third more fishing effort on the same, finite resource.

joseph becklerMar 26 2012 02:12 PM

Have you ever thought that maybe there are more fisherman today becasue there are just more people in the U.S. and more people moving to the coast every year. Use a little common sense on this. I know for me it's not worth spending the money on fuel to go fishing when I can only keep a couple fish. I'll just head to Bone Fish Grill.

Captain Geoffrey OwensMar 27 2012 10:52 PM

Just because there are more anglers doesn't mean they are all catching red snapper,the majority are inshore fisherman or trolling for pelagic species such as dolphin,tuna and billfish.And as far as the good ole days,when the red snapper are eating invasive species such as lionfish,triggerfish eggs and all the baitfish that gags feed on I'd say their days are pretty good.I agree more should have done years ago as far as size and trip limits but you are just now seeing their comeback from trawl nets and gill nets in the 70's and early 80's,there needs to be a middle ground between sensible regulation and a sustainable resource.

Rusty HudsonMar 28 2012 06:43 PM

Hi Terry and David,

The winter time longline survey had one third of their sets in the deep, one third in the middle ground and one third near shore. I can dig up the info from the half season snapshot that was intended to be a three year summer and winter time effort in our minds to have been effective and useful in the next full benchmark for Atlantic Red snappers. NMFS pulled the plug on that effort.

Plus they needed a bandit survey. Chevron traps as you know do not work in the deeper waters due to the Gulf stream currents and are not known for catching very many red snapper, especially old large ones. The infrequency of independent longline sets of 100 hooks by NMFS and/or MARMAP through the years does not help modeling much, and the 20 hook short lines vertically fished are equally sparse from those two groups.

David you are right, the past four decades saw a ramping up of the recreational sector, and the last two decades have seen a huge benefit from the 20-inch minimum size for red snappers. Several other management factors have augmented the Atlantic red snapper populations including but not limited to bag limits since the recreational sector has been the largest user group of Atlantic red snappers.

Geoffrey Owens was correct in pointing out the impacts of the old fish trawls that were banned in January 1989. This activity effected a lot of inshore live bottom between the late 1970's and the late 1980's. You can read about that effect at this hyperlink beginning on page 33 about various fishery conflicts.

Several other portions of that text and the Source book are useful to accurately understand the historic periods.

By the late 1980's a lot of changes took place so that by 1992 and more recently a lot of fish stock growth has occurred. The shame is that after the original 1996 red snapper stock assessment report was published, the NMFS chose not to conduct a continuity run during SEDAR 15 nor SEDAR 24.

Worse yet, the NMFS science created an artificial recreational destruction of all the red snapper stocks in the model by depending on the Salt Water Angling Surveys (SWAS). The SWAS is not accurate, creates a huge biomass of fish in stock assessments, and then crashes 20 to 30 years later.

Recently we used the US Census as a proxy and it smoothed out the historic presumptions with SEDAR 28 for Spanish mackerel. We look forward to seeing the future Atlantic red snapper assessment to provide realistic assumptionis into the models used.

MRFSS calibration into MRIP workshop ends tomorrow in North Carolina. MRFSS estimates during the 1980's are unrealistic and eventually those outrageous assumptions need cleaning up or removed from the modeling efforts.

Also, to claim the recreational fishermen in all depths bottom fishing are flat top instead of dome shape is another modification that needs to be made to the modeling.

There are several other tweaks, as witnessed when the November 2010 alternative runs were made that eliminated the need for an inshore closed area to bottom fishing from Georgia to Central Florida.

Don't the two of you want to help convince the NMFS science to make these modifications to the modeling? The truth will set you free they say.

Rusty Hudson

Geoffrey OwensMar 29 2012 11:24 AM

No Rusty they don't ,do you think it is coincidence that all the major species in every fishery that make the most money were attacked with over regulation at once.Sandbar Sharks-choke species for the shark fishery,on the verge of extinction????My first trip for small coastal sharks I let my gear soak for 2 hrs. I had a sandbar or cut-off on every hook.(240)Vermillion snapper???You can't even fish because the 20 lb. mule snapper eat your verms or your little hooks,this isn't on just one or two places,these are vast areas with thousands of habitats.The enviro's know what they are doing,and it has nothing to do with the fish at all,it's a classic bait and switch agenda.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In