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Biologists: Fisheries at Risk as Bills Target Science-Based Conservation

More than 200 prominent scientists have signed a letter to Congress opposing legislation that would weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the U.S. fisheries law that sets catch limits based on scientific evidence.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Fish law photo
Commercial fishers land groundfish in the Gulf of Maine in January 2017.Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Are fish the next casualties in the war on science?

A group of distinguished marine scientists, including a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), apparently think so. More than 200 scientists have signed a letter addressed to the United States Congress opposing efforts to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the 1976 law that governs management of U.S. fisheries and is credited with preventing the collapse of fish stocks.

Conservation group Oceana released the letter on Monday, October 23, the day before a Senate subcommittee holds a hearing on the Act. The scientists say proposed legislation would weaken scientific standards to allow for higher catch limits.

The proceedings before the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard is one in a series of hearings held this year to consider the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Amendments to the MSA proposed by one bill, H.R. 200, would undermine sustainable, scientifically supported fishing policies, according to opponents.

H.R. 200, the principal bill under consideration by the House of Representatives, would significantly undermine and weaken the U.S. fishery management system, which emphasizes the use of scientific advice in fish conservation and management,” said Ted Morton, director of federal oceans policy at Pew Charitable Trusts. “The MSA protects our natural resources and several of the proposed changes would be a major setback for marine conservation.”

According to Morton, H.R. 200, called the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” would pose a threat to decades of progress in restoring some of the nation’s most depleted fish populations.

The bill rewords the current law in a way that appears to open up loopholes allowing fishers to catch more fish than scientific research suggests is healthy for maintaining sustainable fish stocks. For example, H.R. 200 replaces a mandate that fisheries managers set reasonable timelines for restoring at-risk fish populations with a wide list of exemptions, such as the effects of “unusual events” on fish stocks.

A second bill, H.R. 2023, the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017,” could exempt fish species from science-based catch limits meant to prevent overfishing. Both bills put short-term economic and political priorities before the long-term benefits of sustainable, recovered fisheries, said Morton, who added that there is a good chance that Congress will pass the bills in some form.

“Several of the provisions being considered are a substantial threat,” said Morton. “If implemented, they would threaten years of progress in rebuilding some of our nation’s fish populations, preventing overfishing and making sure scientific advice is the foundation of fishery management decisions.”

Since being implemented in 1976 and twice reauthorized in 1996 and 2006, the MSA has contributed to the recoveries of ecologically and economically important fish species. That includes the mid-Atlantic bluefish fishery, which declined to unsustainable levels as recently as the late 1990s but which fully recovered by 2009. New England sea scallop stocks, which suffered a precipitous decline, were fully restored by 2001. As the law stands, scientific assessments of fish populations help determine the setting of catch limits for each fish species.

Nearly 90 percent of U.S. fisheries maintain catch levels below annual limits and more than 40 formerly depleted fish stocks have recovered since 2000 thanks to the MSA, according to NOAA’s fisheries division.

“These changes have enabled the United States to become a global leader in well-managed and profitable fisheries,” the marine scientists, including former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, now a professor at Oregon State University, wrote in their letter to Congress. “Annual catch limits are vital to the health of fish populations and provide the guardrails to make and keep fisheries sustainable. Removal of these key management tools will hurt our fisheries, our oceans and the U.S. economy.”

However, recreational fishers, who are allocated smaller catch limits than commercial fishers, are not happy with the law.

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act was written to regulate commercial fishing, with recreational fishing largely being an afterthought,” said Mike Leonard, conservation director at the American Sportfishing Association. “As a result, recreational fishermen are managed under a system designed for an entirely different activity, leading to a lot of uncertainty, over-precaution and dissatisfaction due to a lack of fair access to generally healthy fish stocks.”

He said that the proposed amendments to the MSA would still prevent overfishing while increasing recreational fishers’ access to plentiful fish stocks so they “would be able to finally reap the rewards of the act’s biological success.”

Many recreational fish species are understudied, such as the cobia in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Leonard. He said the MSA amendments would improve recreational fishing data, especially for less-understood species, allowing for more dynamic fisheries management that adapts quickly to changes in fish populations.

More than 170 groups representing fishers, chefs, business owners and community leaders oppose H.R. 200, according to the scientists’ letter. The letter, which will be presented to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, states that the legislation undermines key environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act.

U.S. fish populations are an important natural resource,” said Morton. “They provide significant economic and ecological benefits to fishermen and coastal communities. It is vital that we maintain the existing, robust process established under NEPA for public involvement in considering the fishery management decisions that affect those communities as well as other coastal and ocean natural resources.”

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