Drue Banta Winters | AFS Policy Director
A new marine fisheries policy was approved by the AFS Governing Board in Atlantic City in August to inform the proposed Congressional reauthorization and amendment of the Magnuson‐Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA), the federal law that governs fisheries management in offshore waters. Early this year, AFS President Steve McMullin empaneled a special committee of prominent marine fisheries experts to provide science‐based recommendations to inform policy‐makers as they seek to revise the law. The committee was led by co‐chairs Tom Miller, University of Maryland fisheries professor and director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and Cynthia Jones, past president of the Marine Fisheries Section and eminent scholar at Old Dominion University. The committee took a thoughtful approach to reviewing the law and focused its advice on four key areas: Best Scientific Information Available, Catch Limits and Rebuilding, Habitat and Ecosystems, and Adapting to Changing Conditions.
The most recent revision to the MSFCMA, passed in 1996, includes requirements to stop overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and establish annual catch limits (ACL). In the last re‐authorization, AFS sought to elevate fish habitat to a national standard for fisheries conservation, separate allocation decisions from conservation decisions, strengthen the provisions on overfishing, and establish rebuilding schedules for overfished stocks. Many of AFS’s policy recommendations were incorporated into that revision of the law. By most accounts, the law has led to successful conservation of our nation’s fisheries. Indeed, in its most recent report to Congress, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries boasts that the number of overfished stocks is at an all‐time low and touts the 44 stocks that have been rebuilt since 2000.
Despite these conservation gains, there have been challenges with implementation of the law for both commercial and recreational fisheries. No law is without flaws. Over the last 5 years, there have been efforts to amend MSFCMA, but AFS has been largely absent from the policy debate. I’m happy to report, that with the approval of the policy recommendations, AFS has re‐established a voice in the deliberations. We’re a little late to the party, but there’s still time for meaningful engagement.
Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 200, sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R.‐Alaska), a controversial bill that some have characterized as undermining science‐based accountability and jeopardizing the progress in rebuilding fish stocks. Indeed, some organizations have billed the House bill as the “Empty Oceans Act.” The proposed changes to the law are largely driven by recreational fishing stakeholders who are frustrated by what, in their view, is an inflexible system that was largely set up to manage commercial fisheries. Anglers have criticized a one‐size‐fits‐all management framework that has resulted in restricted fishing opportunities despite significant conservation gains. The challenges with implementation of the law extend to commercial fishermen as well. In some regions, landings do not correspond with population gains in rebuilt fisheries due to issues with management of mixed stock fisheries or moving fish stocks as a result of changing ocean conditions.
It was with this context in mind that the committee made its science‐based recommendations to inform future changes to the law. A synopsis of the committee’s recommendations appear in this issue and the full report can be found on the AFS website and in a future issue of Fisheries.
AFS stands by the fundamental scientific framework that was established in the last revision of the MSA and supports separation of scientific from socioeconomic decision‐making. However, the society recognizes the challenges to managing fisheries using annual catch limits in recreational fisheries and for data poor stocks and provides options for dealing with those hurdles in a scientifically‐sound manner. Importantly, AFS strongly supports reliance on best scientific information available and urges against using data that would inject bias into decision‐making. AFS believes rebuilding timelines should be based on the biology of the stock, but encourages policy‐makers to look towards management tools that would avoid the need for rebuilding altogether and the resulting sharp changes in catch limits that can occur with strict rebuilding time limits. AFS suggests that policy‐makers should look towards management of exploitation rates in a rebuilding context rather than using abundance and encourages the use of harvest control rules that have been simulation tested in a management strategy evaluation to reduce fishing mortality before a species becomes overfished.
Here in Washington, we have been working to share this information with members of Congress and their staff, NOAA Fisheries, conservation organizations and trade associations, and others who have a stake in the federal fisheries management debate.
There is always a role for AFS members to be engaged in the policy work of the society. I am thankful for the service of those members who answered the call to share that knowledge to help inform policymakers and grateful for the thoughtful leadership of our co‐chairs. This is the culmination of the new AFS policy program. The society is fortunate to count the nation’s foremost fisheries professionals as members. I hope that each member will consider how they can best contribute their time and talents to advancing sound conservation policy for the benefit of fish.
Committee members: Thomas Miller, Cynthia M. Jones, Chad Hanson, Selina Heppell, Olaf Jensen, Patricia Livingston, Kai Lorenzen, Kathy Mills, Will Patterson III, Patrick Sullivan, and Richard Wong
Note: The findings and viewpoints expressed in this article represent a consensus opinion of the AFS Special Committee on Magnuson‐Stevens Re‐Authorization and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position(s) of the authors’ respective institutions.