The Challenge of Protecting Fish Habitat through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act
Abstract. Eight regional fishery management councils and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are charged with managing fisheries outside 3 mi (5 km) in accordance with the Magnuson– Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and other federal law. Protecting fish habitat is just one of many management responsibilities. All fishery management plans must describe and identify essential fish habitat using guidelines established by the Secretary of Commerce, and managers must minimize, to the extent practicable, adverse effects caused by fishing and encourage conservation and enhancement of essential fish habitat. This paper summarizes habitat provisions in the MSA, Secretarial guidance, and how they have evolved over time. It reviews the actions of the eight councils to identify and protect habitat and discusses how additional fishing restrictions must be approached within the context of other issues facing managers. Managers are pressured not only to protect habitat from a wide range of fishing gears, but to reduce bycatch, minimize impacts on stressed and endangered species, rebuild and maintain fish stocks, provide optimum yield, protect communities, promote safety, and simultaneously provide for economically feasible fisheries. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council actions to protect habitat are discussed in more detail as an example of the challenges faced in balancing conservation and management needs. Legal issues are discussed, as well as the high costs of conducting the research necessary to identify essential fish habitat and its relation with fish stocks. It is argued that despite the challenges of the council and NMFS fishery management process under the MSA, it still remains the most expedient way to develop habitat protections with higher probability of acceptance by the fishing industry.