AFS Experts Share MSA Recommendations with NOAA Fisheries and Key Hill Staff

On October 11, AFS Policy Director Drue Winters shepherded marine fisheries experts, Drs. Tom Miller and Cynthia Jones, around D.C. for robust discussions with NOAA Fisheries and Congressional staff on policy considerations for re-authorizing and amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA).

Context: Over the last several years, Congress has made attempts to amend the MSA.  In July, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 200 largely on party lines. The bill incorporates provisions of the Modern Fish Act that have made calls for flexibility in the law to deal with frustration from recreational anglers.  There is currently no corresponding re-authorization bill in the Senate.  However, a version of the Modern Fish Act passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this year. It is unclear whether there will be any movement on the legislation in the near future.  AFS will be sure to stay engaged as attempts to amend the law progress.

Meeting Details

The day began at NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries, where AFS representatives met with Director Alan Risenhoover and members of his staff on a range of policy considerations. In particular, Dr. Miller highlighted the benefits of broader use of harvest control rules that have been simulation-tested by the Fisheries Management Councils to avoid the need for rebuilding plans.  The AFS team also addressed opportunities created by dynamic ocean management to reduce bycatch and non-target species in mixed-use fisheries. Dr. Miller explained how the four traditional tools of fisheries management (size limits, season limits, closed areas and catch limits) and the regulations that support them, are not sufficiently flexible to respond to the dynamic seascape. He added, however, that new technologies developed over the last 25 years could help with this issue.

[Today, fishing vessels know exactly where they are spatially, where they are with respect to currents and surface temperature features, exactly where their nets are, and how much is in their net. Scientists are also using this information to develop predictive models that would provide information on where stocks can be caught, and as importantly what could be avoided. However, the capabilities these technologies offer have not entered the regulatory environment.  Dynamic ocean management could lead to smaller areas of the ocean being closed to fisheries, less bycatch of endangered and unwanted species, and an increase in the efficiency of individual fishing vessels. Data collected in such a system could lead to more accurate stock assessments and improved fisheries management.]

Following the NOAA Fisheries meeting, the team then headed to the Hill for separate meetings with Senate Commerce Committee and House Natural Resources Committee staff members.  A large part of the discussion in the Senate meeting focused on the use of Best Scientific Information Available. For example, recreational fishing stakeholders have called for the use of self-reported data via cell phone apps to estimate catch in hopes of providing anglers more days on the water, when accountability measures have led to short seasons. Dr. Jones explained that only successful anglers are likely to self-report and that insistence on using mobile phone apps for self-reported catch data will almost certainly hurt recreational anglers.

Further, she said that when the reported high catch rates are transmitted without any accounting for the anglers who fished and caught nothing, the catch-per-unit effort will be higher than the true rate. A higher catch would be calculated resulting in greater catch restrictions or, in some case, even closing the fishery or shortening the season – thus, depriving anglers of catching up to the sustainable limit if true catch rates were available.

Dr. Jones then explained that angler collected data from mobile devices are helpful to determine spatial distribution, movement patterns and often biological characteristics of the catch that’s particular helpful in light of changing conditions.

During the meeting with House Natural Resources minority staff, Dr. Miller discussed AFS calls for flexibility and adaptability in the law. He explained that AFS stands by the fundamental framework of the law, but that transitioning out of rebuilding could be more flexible to account for uncertainties in estimates. A stock can be moved into or out of rebuilding when estimates are one fish over or under the threshold for rebuilding.  He clarified that it is more flexible and adaptive to allow councils to make rebuilding determination based on three years of data rather than one, particularly for highly productive stocks.

He also highlighted the challenges for fisheries management as a result of changing ecosystems.  He expressed the need for significant additional resources to be directed to better understanding the unprecedented changes that we are already seeing from climate change so that information could be properly incorporated into stock assessments and management decisions.

AFS staff is continuing outreach efforts to inform hill staff and others of these important recommendations. AFS thanks Drs. Miller and Jones for their tremendous service to AFS and in communicating fisheries science to policy-makers in a way that was relevant to the policy debate and understandable to the audience.