On July 19, the House Natural Resources Committee’s Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee held an oversight hearing to explore regional successes and challenges associated with federal fisheries management under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Stakeholders from various regions testified on specific management challenges they have faced, and highlighted reforms that could be made to the act to afford regional fishery managers and the Secretary of Commerce the flexibility to tailor management plans to the unique circumstances of different fisheries – both commercial and recreational – in different regions across the U.S.
First passed in 1976, MSA is the primary law governing commercial and recreational marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters out to 200 nautical miles from shore. The law seeks to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, increase long-term economic and social benefits, and ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood. Congress made significant revisions to MSA in 1996 with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, and again in 2007 with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act. Federal fisheries are managed for Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), the amount of fish that can be removed from the stock without impacting the long-term stability of the population. MSY can be adjusted for the ecological, economic, and social goals of the country to achieve Optimal Yield.
There are a number of bills that have been introduced in this Congress to reform federal fisheries management. Congressman Don Young (R-AK) sponsored a MSA reauthorization bill, H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, provides for flexibility in the currently mandated 10-year rebuilding timeframes that would allow Fishery Management Councils to take economic factors such as the effects of the fishing restrictions on the fishing communities into account while still rebuilding the fishery. Congressman Garret Graves (R-LA) introduced H.R. 2023, the Modernization Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, to address recreational fisheries concerns with federal management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Both bills are awaiting subcommittee action.
Republicans expressed concern about access for commercial and recreational fishing, lack of reliable data to inform stock assessments, inflexible regulations, and limited fishing areas resulting from expanded Marine Protected Areas associated with Marine National Monuments and Marine Sanctuaries. Democrats highlighted the existing flexibility in the law and touted the successes in rebuilding fish stocks through science-based catch limits, accountability measures and rebuilding plans under MSA.
Nick Wiley, executive director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) testified that he believes MSA, as currently written, needs to be modified and improved to better balance today’s need for access and conservation. In his written testimony, he noted “The Act has worked best when applied to the commercial sector, but not so well when applied to the recreational sector.” Further, he noted “the requirements to manage fisheries under strict annual catch limits, the overly prescriptive constraints for stock rebuilding plans, and general inflexibility within the current version of the law have hindered management of fish stocks in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. This inflexibility has fostered a serious erosion of public confidence, trust, and support for this fishery management system.”
Sean Martin testified on behalf of the Hawaii Longline Association. He expressed concern with the establishment of national marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean under the Antiquities Act of 1906 which, in his view, circumvented MSA and excluded the fishing industry. He recommended that the MSA be amended to ensure that the act is the only process by which regulations affecting U.S. fisheries can be adopted to ensure a transparent, public, and science-based process.
Jeff Kaelin, representing a Cape May, New Jersey commercial fishing enterprise, Lund’s Fisheries, expressed support for H.R. 200, Rep. Young’s MSA re-authorization bill and highlighted the need for reforms to the existing law, particularly in light of what he views as challenges to consistently achieving Optimum Yield. He testified that insufficient data on many stocks and scientific uncertainty has resulted in robust precautionary buffers around quotas and yields below MSY at the expense of the industry and our Nation.
Charles Witek, a recreational angler and outdoor writer specializing in saltwater fishery conservation from New York, spoke in favor of the existing conservation and management provisions of MSA. He testified that Annual Catch Limits and rebuilding deadlines were the only framework that has met with consistent success. He explained that New York’s inshore fisheries are managed in cooperation with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) under a “flexible management system that does not require overfishing to be ended, stocks to be rebuilt by a particular deadline or the best scientific information to be used when evaluating the health of the stock.” He testified that federally managed stocks have been successfully rebuilt since the 1996 amendment to MSA, but the ASMFC has failed to rebuild a single stock under its sole jurisdiction and a number of stocks have even declined since then. He also called for the best peer reviewed science to be used in assessments and advocated for ecosystem-based management.
The need for improved data and data collection methods was discussed repeatedly in the hearing. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) asked each panelist whether they supported more funding for fishery science. All of the panelists expressed support for increased funding, but Mr. Wiley cautioned that funding should be directed towards the greatest needs. State fisheries agencies in the Gulf of Mexico have been critical of the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) which relies on mail surveys for catch data and argue that it cannot provide data at the level of timeliness and accuracy needed for managing effort by quota-based Annual Catch Limits. In response, the Gulf Coast states have developed data collection surveys that rely on more frequent in-season surveys and have made other data-collection improvements. All five Gulf States have developed or are developing state-specific reef fish angler harvest data programs to identify the pool of reef fish anglers and collect harvest data in, or close to, real-time. In addition, they are investing in smart phone technology for anglers to log their catch and contribute significant data to the management system.
The Senate has scheduled a number of hearings on MSA in August. We will continue to track legislative developments on efforts to reauthorize MSA and will provide periodic updates.
Upcoming Hearings on MSA:
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard will hold a hearing on August 1, 2017 at 10:00 a.m., titled “Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: NOAA and Council Perspectives“.
Witnesses will be:
- Christopher Oliver, Assistant Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- John Quinn, Chair, Council Coordination Committee and Northeast Fishery Management Council
The hearing can be viewed at:
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing titled “Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: Oversight of Fisheries Management Successes and Challenges on August 23, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. (Alaska Standard Time). The hearing will be held at the Kenai Peninsula College, Soldotna, Alaska.
A witness list is not available for this hearing yet and it is unclear whether this hearing will be webcast. If so, it will be available at: https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/hearings?ID=B41AA74D-2FE6-4945-AAFF-4B43AD0ACCF7