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Lisa Suatoni’s Blog

Why not first ask: 'Is it working?'

Lisa Suatoni

Posted May 28, 2014

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As Congress prepares to consider reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the rebuilding provision of that law has—again—become a lightning rod.

The rebuilding provision, which Congress incorporated into the law by Congress in the 1996 reauthorization, mandates that overfished fisheries be rebuilt to healthy levels in a time period “as short as possible… not [to] exceed 10 years except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates dictate otherwise” (Section 304(c)(4)).

There is much debate about whether the provision is flexible enough (despite the clearly stated exceptions).   And last Friday, Representative Doc Hastings introduced a bill that would severely weaken the provision.

Curiously little attention has been focused on the primary question: Is it working?

In a recently released paper, we (Kimberly Lai-Oremus, Brad Sewell and I) gathered data from every regional fishery management council and conducted the first statistical examination of this question. In this study, we asked whether the implementation of the rebuilding requirement was associated with a rebound in depleted fish populations. The analysis shows compelling evidence that it was.

In other words, the provision seems to be working. Keep in mind that exploring causality is difficult in this situation because—by law—there can be no fish populations that serve as a scientific “control” (i.e., legally designated “overfished” stocks which do not get put into formal rebuilding programs). That said, the data support the hypothesis that the rebuilding programs are making a difference.

Specifically, we found a strong temporal correlation between implementation of the rebuilding requirements and the recovery of many formerly depleted fish populations. Of the 44 fish stocks in rebuilding plans, 19 showed a statistically significant positive association with the implementation of rebuilding plans. Not one showed a statistically significant negative association.

To find such a striking signal in so many fish stocks is noteworthy given the high natural variation in fish populations and the wide range of factors that influence—and challenge—rebuilding plan design and implementation.

It is never easy to tease out the precise effect a policy is having on a complex system such as a fish populations.  It has taken 15 years to acquire a data set that could begin to address the question. The results should be encouraging to everyone who cares about revitalizing U.S fisheries.  We are on the right track.

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Tony AustinMay 30 2014 06:14 AM

Hastings & Col. want to take away the one provision of the act that appears to be working. Other than revising Magnuson so no fishermen or dealers are on the Councils, which should be composed of managers and scientists - fishermen on Advisory Panels only, time limits for stock rebuilding are the only saving grace....

Kristine HarderMay 31 2014 02:10 PM

It is heartbreaking that despite National Standard 8, MSA has bulldozed down jobs and destroyed communities. BUT NO ONE CARES. Privatization and consolidation of wealth. That is the heritage of MSA.(2) To the extent practicable, mini- mize adverse economic impacts on such communities.
(b) General. (1) This standard requires that an FMP take into account the im- portance of fishery resources to fishing communities. This consideration, how- ever, is within the context of the con- servation requirements of the Magnu- son-Stevens Act. Deliberations regard- ing the importance of fishery resources to affected fishing communities, there- fore, must not compromise the achieve- ment of conservation requirements and goals of the FMP. Where the preferred alternative negatively affects the sus- tained participation of fishing commu- nities, the FMP should discuss the ra- tionale for selecting this alternative over another with a lesser impact on fishing communities. All other things being equal, where two alternatives achieve similar conservation goals, the alternative that provides the greater potential for sustained participation of such communities and minimizes the adverse economic impacts on such communities would be the preferred al- ternative.

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